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Survivors of Violence and Fear of Deportation: A Story from an Advocate

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

**Trigger Warning** This article contains a survivor’s story that describes acts of physical violence.

Recent studies show that “fear of deportation” is the number one reason Latinas who are victims of domestic violence do not report the abuse to the police.[1]  A study conducted in 2015 by the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and National Domestic Violence Hotline found that “45 percent of the foreign-born callers expressed fear of calling and/or seeking help from the police or courts.  Furthermore, 12 percent of US-born callers expressed fear of seeking help due to the current immigration situation.”[2]  Recent news stories of a woman who was placed into deportation proceedings when she went to get a gynecological exam and another after she was stopped for a traffic violation while taking her sick child to the hospital validate and reinforce this fear.

Immigrant victims of domestic violence often reach out to advocates when they suffer abuse.  Advocates in turn encourage victims to report the abuse to law enforcement because advocates understand the need to build trust between law enforcement and the immigrant community to create safer neighborhoods.  Yet, in light of recent treatment of immigrants, advocates of domestic and sexual violence victims are increasingly wondering whether police departments will truly help women and children who have experienced abuse. The following experience, narrated by an advocate, illustrates the feelings many advocates share across the country:

“I am a Family Advocate at a non-profit, Latina, domestic violence agency that has been providing services to immigrant survivors of domestic violence for over 30 years. My job is to help families experiencing violence to find relief from the abuse, but sometimes it is difficult to help immigrant survivors of domestic violence because they fear deportation if they contact law enforcement.

I have been an advocate for 3 years and have worked with survivors and the Latino community across Minnesota and the U.S.  Survivors contact us from many municipalities seeking refuge from their violent partners or seeking support in their communities. Naturally, I have always connected survivors with police departments, especially since Minnesota state law does not require law enforcement to report a person’s immigration status to Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).  My understanding of police departments’ policies, however, changed recently when I took a survivor of violence named Julia to the local police station to make a report against her ex-boyfriend, who threatened to kill her and her daughters.

When I met Julia to register her daughter for school, she asked me to read aloud a letter that she’d found on her car the day before. I began to read the letter slowly. After finishing the first two lines, it became clear that this was a warning to Julia. I painstakingly continued feeling very uncomfortable as the writer called Julia a “whore”, “trash”, and “worthless.” I could see Julia turn her eyes to the floor as I tried to read over her reactions. Julia had a history of protective orders against her ex-boyfriend, and he was already convicted of a misdemeanor domestic assault against Julia.   Finally, I quieted my voice as I scanned the remainder of the letter and read that if Julia did not comply with his demands, the man would kill her and her daughters.

After hearing these words, Julia looked up at me wide-eyed and boldly asked ‘What should I do?’

Julia knew this was from her ex-boyfriend because the threats and the abusive names he wrote were the same as those he had used many times while they were living together. She knew too well the emotional abuse, the insults, the degrading names, the accusations that she had cheated on him. He would become enraged with her if she went out with friends or family to socialize.  He punched her, grabbed her, and threw her across rooms and onto the floor, giving her bruises.  On many occasions, he threatened Julia by telling her he would kill her and her daughters if she called the police or left him.

‘What should Julia do?’ I asked myself.

First, I told Julia that she had the right to file a police report because the threats to kill her and her daughters were a very serious criminal offense- a felony in that particular jurisdiction.  I asked Julia for the copy of the No-Contact order that was currently in place against her ex-boyfriend, which she handed to me.  After ensuring the order was still in effect, I explained to Julia that if she made a police report the county would likely pursue additional criminal charges for a violation of that order.  I also told Julia she could seek an Order for Protection through family court against her ex-boyfriend, which would not add any criminal charges unless her ex-boyfriend violated that order and she reported those violations to the police.

Julia decided to try to stop her ex-boyfriend in his tracks by reporting the abuse, and also to obtain a new protective order.  I accompanied Julia to the local police station.  When the police asked to see her ID, she handed the officer her non-U.S. passport. When the officer asked if she had a U.S. ID, she said no.  The officer then told us that they were required to report Julia’s information (name and address) to Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).  After inquiring for the reason of the practice, the officer responded that it was protocol in their police department to send information of any undocumented person with whom they interacted to ICE, regardless of whether that person was the suspect or victim filing the report.

Julia had brought one her young daughters to the police station and looked down at her lovingly and then turned to me with a terrified expression, tears welling up in her eyes, and asked me in a shaky voice what would happen to her daughters if she were deported.  As an advocate, I panicked because I thought that I was going to be the cause of Julia’s removal.  Both Julia and I knew stories of people who had gotten picked up by ICE and deported.  I felt I had guided Julia into a trap.  She had to choose between reporting the abuse she had been suffering and potentially face deportation and separation from her U.S. Citizen daughters, or remain silent, endure the abuse, and allow yet another criminal to keep walking the streets.  Julia had been suffering terrible abuse at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, and I was supposed to help her get protection.   Instead, I walked her into a streamline to deportation, thereby exacerbating the anxiety and trauma that this amazing woman and mother already experienced on a day-to-day basis.

While Julia has taken many steps to secure her safety and that of her daughters, she still faces concerns about her ex-boyfriend and has reservations about reporting to the police. This is not an uncommon experience for the immigrant survivors at the non-profit where I work.  Most survivors who receive help from my organization hear about us through a family member or friend. A person may first call our 24-hour bilingual crisis line by getting our number from a community member.  This shows that among the Latino community, critical information is shared between personal connections.  For this reason, when one survivor of domestic violence is reported to ICE, immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the community consequently fear calling the police.  This not only allows the partner using violence to keep using the ‘threat of deportation’ as a tool against the victim, but limits the usefulness of services for life and safety for immigrant survivors.  Ultimately, the fear of deportation that the immigrant community faces in reporting to local law enforcement allows criminals to keep walking our streets and keeps survivors living in fear and danger.”

Ultimately, the justice system can only prosecute criminals if our community is willing to report crimes, assist law enforcement and bring those criminals out to the light.  Survivor advocates play a critical role between law enforcement and the immigrant community and are well positioned to support the reporting, investigation and prosecution of the crimes of domestic violence and sexual assault. When law enforcement entanglement with immigration enforcement vastly increases the chances a survivor will be deported, advocates must inform the survivor of the potential outcomes of the reporting of such crimes.  Advocates consistently report that in areas where reporting crimes will result in contact with immigration enforcement, survivors stay silent as a different kind of self-preservation. As a result, it is exceedingly difficult for advocates to help survivors who have suffered enough, further pushing them into the shadows, and far from the safety, justice and self-determination that advocates, law enforcement and our justice system strive to provide.

[1] http://nomore.org/nomas/

[2] http://www.nationallatinonetwork.org/images/files/HotlineReport_2_2015_Final.pdf

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