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Trump’s anti-immigrant policies create dire “choices” for domestic violence survivors

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"I am afraid,” said G., a domestic violence survivor from Honduras who lives in rural Texas, explaining how President Trump’s policies on undocumented immigrants—making everyone a priority for deportation instead of those with criminal records—have impacted her life. “Before, I felt safe to call the police. Today, because of the laws and the new president, I am not so sure I am able to call if something happens. My abuser feels empowered. Because I have no papers, he thinks immigration will pick me up soon. He has threatened me many times, said he was going to set immigration on me, sent me derogatory memes, mocks me. Now, people try not to go out much or even open the doors to their houses.”

The increases in raids, Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, and new anti-immigrant state initiatives have left survivors of domestic and sexual violence with the option of reporting their abuse to the authorities and risking possible detainment, deportation, and separation from their children. Or staying with their abuser.

“Our clients have been worried about whether it was worth it to call for protection when they’re being abused, or once they’ve left an abuser to get orders of protection,” said Glenaan O’Neil, director of the Lone Star Victims Advocacy Project, which advocates, educates, and provides free legal services to empower immigrant victims of abuse in rural Texas. “Shelters are worried too. In rural Texas, many shelters don’t have bilingual staff or expertise dealing with immigration issues, or how to respond to this new atmosphere and hostility toward immigrants either. For women, knowing that if they call the police they could be deported is their biggest fear becoming real. In one immigration enforcement action in Austin alone, 75 people were detained. I had one client who was crying … she was just so afraid. She said, ‘I’ve lived here since I was five years old and I love this country. Why doesn’t this country love me?’”

The 2017 Advocate and Legal Services Survey Regarding Immigrant Survivors, released in May, found that around 75 percent of immigrant survivors of domestic and sexual violence were concerned about contacting the police and going to court. There was a 62 percent increase in the number of immigration-related questions from survivors coming into domestic violence agencies. The report, put together by seven national organizations to document what advocates were hearing from their clients, surveyed 715 victim advocates and attorneys from 46 states and the District of Columbia.

“The executive orders have put a powerful tool in the hands of abusers. They hold deportation over the heads of undocumented victims and say ‘I can ruin your life,’” said Archi Pyati, chief of policy and programs at the Tahirih Justice Center, a legal and social services organization for immigrant women and girls who are survivors of violence and one of the groups that contributed to the report. “We used to be able to tell women that their abusers were not right. Now things are more uncertain. Advocates hope that the impact of the survey that we conducted will be that policy makers will consider the ramifications of bills that give broader immigration powers to local law enforcement. When this much fear is created, people are less willing to cooperate with law enforcement and that makes us all less safe.”

Forty-three percent of the advocates in the survey reported that they worked with immigrant survivors who had dropped their criminal or civil case because they were too afraid to continue with them. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act were intended to provide special visas and waivers to protect immigrant victims of crime. But now, even having a pending visa application is not a guaranteed form of protection. “By eliminating immigration enforcement priorities and casting a much broader net, there are increased risks of the arrest and deportation of immigrant victims without providing them the opportunity to seek assistance,” said Rosie Hidalgo, senior director of public policy at Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network, also a contributor to the report. “Individuals with limited English proficiency are at greater risk of being arrested and possibly put on a path to deportation. Since there is a significant backlog in processing and adjudicating applications for the U visa for victims of crime, this could potentially increase the risk of deportation for survivors while they are waiting for their cases to be adjudicated. [However] the National Domestic Violence Hotline has trained advocates and provide access in all languages and helps connect victims to local resources.”

In Texas, S.B. 4 gives local law enforcement the authority to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the United States illegally; the law has created confusion. “In some areas, the police think that now they have to ask about immigration status or they will lose their jobs, which is not what the bill says,” said O’Neil. “In some areas, the police are interested in community policing, and more people come forward, report abuse, and work with law enforcement. One county over, you might have a sheriff’s department that does not do community outreach or have any deputies who speak Spanish, and come into contact with immigrants only when they’re bringing people to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. In those areas, immigrant victims will live with violence. All of our clients want a hard answer to “Will I be deported?” and we don’t have one. I used to think we could all agree that violence is unacceptable, but that notion is being challenged.”

In locales where officials are receptive to ameliorating the situation, domestic and sexual violence organizations have found it effective to reach out to law enforcement. “We need to be doing advocacy in different systems and make sure that the courts and the police have welcoming policies,” said Grace Huang, policy director at the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, another group involved with the survey. “In Seattle, where I work, I believe there wasn’t the same reporting of declines in numbers [of survivors seeking assistance] as in other places because the mayor and city council have come out affirmatively and are clear that Seattle is a welcoming city. People want to safety plan and mitigate possible risks of immigration enforcement if they use the systems that are in place. This adds a layer of complexity [and] takes a level of training that many people didn’t have until recently.”

Meanwhile, opposition to Trump’s immigration policies continues to grow. “More cities and counties are becoming aware and becoming sanctuaries,” said Laura Rotolo, staff counsel and community advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “In those places, police reach out to communities and let them know they won’t collaborate with ICE, explaining what they do and do not do. "

Advocates are working tirelessly to do everything they can to reach people in crisis. “Whenever there is uncertainty, there is an increased sense of fear,” said Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. But “we will help people in whatever place they are in, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. You don’t have to be alone."

Building coalitions is essential. “Immigrant rights groups and women’s groups have a long history of collaborating,” said Sarah Brenes, refugee and immigrant program director for The Advocates for Human Rights. “A great deal of collaborative momentum led to and followed the VAWA. These coalitions continue to be strengthened amidst the threat to protections for this vulnerable population.”

“We can't stay silent,” said G., who eventually sought help from a shelter, which referred her to the Lone Star Victims Advocacy Project. “If we are afraid to call the police, we should go find help at a domestic violence shelter. I was going crazy, wasn't sleeping. I didn't have a life, just anxiety until I looked for help. And here I am, fighting for my family.”

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