As threats of deportation continue to rattle immigrant communities, advocates and attorneys in the Washington area say they have seen a marked increase in undocumented victims of domestic violence choosing not to pursue legal recourse against their abusers.
Many victims are reluctant to even start the legal process, experts say, concerned that police will turn them over to federal immigration authorities or that their partners will retaliate by revealing their immigration status.
Others, afraid of being ambushed by federal agents at a courthouse, drop their cases once they realize they have to appear before a judge.
“What we’ve seen is women who are victims of violence, who could qualify for a protective order or who could be a valuable witness in an abuse case, being increasingly afraid of stepping forward,” said Archi Pyati, the chief of policy at the Tahirih Justice Center, one of seven organizations in the Washington area reporting an uptick in immigrant clients choosing not to seek legal recourse.
In May, the center co-sponsored a survey of nearly 600 legal advocates and attorneys across the country. Close to 60 percent of them said they had seen a rise in immigration-related questions from clients who are victims of domestic violence over the past two years.
In a 2018 survey conducted by the ACLU and American University’s National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, close to 400 advocates and legal service providers also reported the number of cases their offices filed for immigrant victims had declined 40 percent from 2016 to 2017.
In the United States, immigrants do not need to reveal their status to apply for a protection order, legal separation or custody of a child. But legal service providers say even when they make this clear, many of their clients remain skeptical.
“There’s a lot of fear around just entering a government building,” said Victoria Hernandez, a supervising attorney at Ayuda, which serves low-income immigrant women in the Washington area. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve worked with a client, and once I tell them they need to go to court, they don’t want to move forward.”
Tricia, a 42-year-old D.C. resident originally from Botswana, filed a restraining order against her abusive ex-husband in 2017, but only after making contingency plans for who would take care of her 6-year-old son if she was detained at the courthouse and deported. She declined to give her last name out of fear of being identified by her abuser.
“Of everything, the scariest thing of all was being in court,” she said.
After seeking the restraining order, Tricia filed for divorce and then for custody of her son. In nearly every hearing, her ex-husband, who is a U.S. citizen, raised her immigration status as an attack against her, she said.
Leslye E. Orloff, who directs the women’s advocacy project, said Tricia isn’t alone. “It’s much more likely now for perpetrators to raise deportation in family court,” she said. “It’s totally irrelevant, but abusers are trying to use the immigration status of the victim to gain advantage.”
In the past two weeks, President Trump has renewed threats for a crackdown on undocumented families living inside the United States, prompting immigrants to stay out of sight of the government. Even after he abruptly postponed those plans last weekend, many communities remain on edge.
“Based on what they’re seeing around them, it’s a 100 percent well-founded fear. There’s nothing irrational about it,” Pyati said.
Stories of courthouse arrests have a particularly chilling effect for immigrant victims of abuse, advocates say.
In 2017, several cases of immigrant women being taken into custody at courthouses, including one in El Paso, captured national headlines. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement later released a memo stating that agents should “generally avoid enforcement actions in courthouses,” but Naureen Shah, a senior policy and advocacy counsel at the ACLU, said courthouse arrests have continued.
In July 2018, an immigrant mother and her 15-year-old son were on their way into a courthouse in Charlotte when they were handcuffed by federal immigration agents and led away.
Montgomery County and the District have explicit orders prohibiting local law enforcement officers from cooperating with ICE, while Prince George’s County, home to an estimated 80,000 undocumented residents, is working to finalize a similar policy. Police departments in Arlington and Fairfax have also said they do not intend to work with ICE on civil enforcement.
Despite this, many immigrant survivors in the area remain fearful of law enforcement.
Juanita Miranda, 45, and Nancy, 35, are both immigrants from El Salvador who survived situations of domestic abuse in the Washington area while they were undocumented. Like Tricia, Nancy asked to be identified only by her first name to protect herself from her abuser and immigration authorities.
Working with advocates at La Clínica del Pueblo in Mount Pleasant, Miranda filed a protective order in 2012 after her partner threatened to kill her. Nancy worked extensively with police to prosecute her partner after she was sexually assaulted by him in 2013.
Neither said they would take the same action today.
“Now? No,” Nancy said, her black eye shadow smudging around her eyes. “No, I would never have said anything.”