March 1, 2017 update: Recently, the Washington Post published another article further illustrating the anxiety and uncertainty we are witnessing in our immigrant client population. The article describes the many ways that daily life for immigrants in the D.C. metropolitan area has been negatively impacted by the administration’s plans for more aggressive immigration enforcement. Immigrant parents fearing deportation and separation from their children, the Post reported, are seeking help with contingency planning “in numbers organizers haven’t seen before.”
Seeking help to escape domestic violence can be frightening. For immigrant survivors trying also to navigate these uncertain times, the stakes are even higher.
Just this week U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in El Paso, Texas used one of the most vulnerable moments for a survivor—the act of seeking a court protection order—as an opportunity to arrest an undocumented immigrant at her abuser’s behest. The survivor is a Mexican citizen who suffered significant abuse at the hands of her abuser. Over the past few months, she had made several police reports, detailing incidents in which her abuser punched, choked and attempted to stab her. She managed to find refuge in a domestic violence shelter and made her way to court with the help of a victim advocate. Yet when she finally built up enough courage to seek legal protection, she was met by ICE agents waiting to escort her out of the courthouse.
Even here in the District, which the Mayor has proudly declared to be a sanctuary city, undocumented immigrant domestic violence survivors are afraid. And they have reason. In a recent Civil Protection Order (CPO) case, for example, a client’s abuser threatened to report her to Department of Homeland Security if she did not dismiss her CPO case against him. We have also heard from immigrant D.C. residents, fearing more aggressive immigration enforcement, seeking guidance on how to handle custody matters should they be separated from their children.
These types of threats discourage immigrant survivors of abuse from seeking the protection of the law to which they are entitled. They also create another tool for abusers to abuse and control their victims. Now, when our immigrant clients choose to seek safety, they risk the possibility of deportation.
Federal law provides some relief for undocumented survivors of domestic violence. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) offers protection for spouses and children who are survivors of domestic violence. Survivors of violence who assist in criminal prosecution also may qualify for a U visa. However, these processes could take months or years to complete, and survivors need immediate support to escape the cycle of abuse and control.
At Legal Aid, we understand the many reasons survivors of domestic violence fear coming forward, and we will continue working to bring down those barriers. We believe it is essential that all survivors have access to the resources and protection they need. And that is why we represent clients regardless of their immigration status, not just in CPO matters, but in all of the issue areas in which we practice.
Every day, our domestic violence and family law attorneys help survivors obtain CPOs against their abusers and secure custody and support for their children. In addition to helping survivors manage the logistics of leaving a violent relationship, more and more these days, we are counseling our clients regarding another crushing barrier: possible deportation for reporting abuse and seeking help.