It takes tremendous courage for any domestic violence survivor to make the daunting decision to seek legal recourse against their abuser. Pursuing a domestic violence Civil Protection Order (CPO) case means rearranging your personal, work, and childcare schedule to spend hours in court waiting to see a judge; it means summoning the emotional strength to testify against your abuser at trial; it means revealing, recounting, and reliving the worst moments of your life in a public courtroom, at the risk of not being believed. These reasons alone dissuade many survivors of violence from seeking justice, safety, and independence through the court system.
However, for undocumented immigrant survivors of abuse, a unique set of fears compounds the many reasons why victims of violence choose not to pursue legal protection from abuse. As the Washington Post recently reported, immigrant victims of violence are increasingly concerned that reporting their abuse to the police or the courts will expose their immigration status, lead to their arrest, and result in deportation. Such fears are understandable in the context of the nation’s current political climate, which is overtly hostile towards immigrants who lack legal status. According to U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in 2018, the rate of immigration-related arrests grew by 11%, while the rate of deportation increased by 13%.
Against this backdrop, undocumented survivors of domestic violence are reluctant to take legal action against their abusers in court. Survivors fear that even walking into the courthouse may result in being detained by law enforcement. Here in the District, the Superior Court is staffed by the U.S. Marshal Service, which has the authority to detain individuals inside the courthouse who are known to and wanted by ICE. Furthermore, in the past two years, Legal Aid has heard of multiple instances where litigants in D.C. Superior Court have been apprehended by ICE agents inside the courthouse.
Even if actual immigration arrests inside the courthouse remain rare, what Legal Aid attorneys have observed as all too common are batterers who retaliate against their victims by using their immigration status against them. We have represented undocumented domestic violence survivors whose abusers threaten to report them to ICE unless they dismiss their CPO case. We have counseled immigrant survivors who feel pressured to stay in abusive marriages to citizen spouses on whom they rely for visa sponsorship. We have fought back against abusers who yell in open court that our immigrant clients should be deported.
While federal law offers some avenues for immigrant survivors of domestic violence to obtain legal status, such as the U-Visa and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petition, applications for such relief – which take months, if not years, to process – are accompanied by their own risk: applicants who are denied will be immediately placed in deportation proceedings. Thus, the potential consequences of stepping out of the shadows to seek legal help leave immigrant survivors of domestic violence caught between a rock and a hard place. They are forced to choose between the risk of continued violence at home, and the risk of their entire lives being uprooted by deportation.
In these uncertain times, Legal Aid attorneys remain committed to providing quality legal advice and representation to immigrant survivors of domestic violence who no longer wish to suffer in silence, but fear that seeking legal protection may lead to further danger. We remain committed to comprehensively serving the legal needs of immigrant survivors of abuse, be it in domestic violence, domestic relations, or immigration court. Above all, we remain committed and steadfast in our mission to ensure that all people can have access to justice.