Until recently, I worked at The Family Place, a domestic violence agency in Dallas, where I’d been for a little over two years. There, I served as a violence prevention educator, spending the majority of the week in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges teaching the root causes of gender-based violence, like harassment, sexual assault, and dating violence. I often encountered students in crisis or students who had experienced trauma at home, either as a victim of or a witness to violence. I can still remember each student who told me their storyâ€Š—â€Šeach act of abuse they detailed to me.
But lately, I’ve been reflecting on one girl in particular.
Less than a month into the job, I met a teen girl who had been physically and sexually abused by her ex-boyfriend for over a year. I urged her to report the abuse, but she refused. She explained to me that her parents were undocumented and that she was a DREAMer; any unwanted attention from law enforcement put her and her family at risk for deportation. This was also a reality her abuser continued to remind her of. I then urged her to seek counseling, but she again refused, worried that her parents would learn about the abuse and want to report it to police.
Special protections were written into the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to safeguard victims of domestic violence against deportation (though, admittedly, these protections would have done little to protect my student’s parents). As domestic violence victims, undocumented immigrants, if they meet a set of requirements, may obtain U Nonimmigrant Status or a U Visa, which affords them protections under law enforcement and allows them to later obtain Lawful Permanent Residence. Ideally, these protections create separation between immigration enforcement and local police so that cops may build trust with their communities and encourage victims to report violent crimes.
But in a country where brown and black people are disproportionately targeted for police aggression, a culture of distrust and suspicion of police makes this essential dynamic fraught. Nationwide, the number of police killings of Latinx people are second to black people. In Texas, where I worked, Latinxs are subject to traffic stops more than any other racial group. This is nothing new. As early as the 1940s, Latinxs have organized against police brutality in their communities, especially in poor working-class neighborhoods. Distrust of law enforcement is deeply embedded in Latinx communities and memory.
Like many immigrants, my student was worried that she couldn’t trust the police not to deport her or her family; like many, she was silenced by fear. Two years later, with the recent surge in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids, I assume that she remains silenced.
My student is not an isolated case; it’s not unusual for fear of law enforcement and deportation to keep women trapped in abusive relationships. Other women seeking services at the agency and shelter I worked at found themselves in similar positions. One study found that only 6.9% of Latinx immigrants sought help for domestic violence from federal agencies, vs. 14.7% of non-immigrants.
As the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department puts it:
“Immigrants are particularly vulnerable [to domestic violence] because many may not speak English, are often separated from family and friends, and may not understand the laws of the United States. For these reasons, immigrants are often afraid to report acts of domestic violence to the police or to seek other forms of assistance. Such fear causes many immigrants to remain in abusive relationships.”
As ruthless manipulators, abusers harness their victim’s fears to gain control and prevent them from leaving the relationship. An abuser may tell their partner explicitly that they will inform ICE of their undocumented status, or may intimidate more subtly by just casually mentioning the victim’s status. The Domestic Violence Hotline details other common silencing tactics, including destroying needed legal documents or papers, withdrawing or not filing papers for residency, and preventing the victim from learning English. In the case of my student, she and her abuser had long been separated, yet he continued to remind her of her undocumented status to control, intimidate, and deter her from reporting him.
If undocumented women have children, they are even more vulnerable, fearing separation from their families. And the Trump administration has shown that it has no problem breaking apart families, as in the case of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, who was deported on February 9, leaving behind two American-born children.
Each victim of domestic violence experiences different levels of violence at once, all of which are dependent upon their intersecting identities of gender, race, ability, class, etc. Much of this violence is structuralâ€Š—â€Šsystemic violence that is embedded in our social structures and institutions. Concerning domestic violence, systemic racism can prevent certain communities from receiving basic needs, as is the case with domestic violence services that prioritize white women over Latina women by not providing bilingual services and legal counsel. Structural violence also influences and exacerbates interpersonal violence.
The question should never be, “why does she stay;” it should always be “why do we refuse to dismantle the systems that make it impossible for women to leave?”
As a society, we have certainly done our part in perpetuating the xenophobia that marginalizes some of the most vulnerable victims of violent crime. Harmful rhetoric embedded in our discourse on immigration policy has changed the way we think about immigrants. We see them first as an immigration status and second, if ever, as people.
Even as I wrote this, the story broke of an El Paso woman who was detained by ICE as she left the county courthouse after receiving a protective order against her partner for domestic violence. It appears ICE knew where to find her based on information given by the abuser from whom she was seeking protection. Despite her legal protections under VAWA, she is still being detained—victimized yet again.
The message to other victims of domestic abuse is clear: Immigration status will take precedence over their safety and protection.
Domestic violence victims are among the most vulnerable in our society, and the heightened xenophobic rhetoric leveled against Latinxs and the increase of ICE presence in Latinx communities makes Latinx domestic violence victims even more vulnerable to their abusers’ manipulation and violence. Fear of law enforcement and deportation is not new for Latinx domestic violence victims. But Donald Trump’s immigration policies and the surge in ICE raids leave undocumented Latinx individuals with little recourse for justice within the legal system.
When faced with deportation or abuse, many will reluctantly choose abuse.
If you are undocumented and need relief from an abusive relationship or are unsure of your options, contact a domestic violence agency or shelter. Their doors remain open no matter one’s immigration status.