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Immigrant Domestic Violence Survivors Are Afraid to Go to Law Enforcement Under Trump

Trump-era developments in policy and enforcement have discouraged immigrant survivors of abuse from seeking justice, a new survey finds.
Homeland Security Investigations ICE agents work in a control center.

Homeland Security Investigations ICE agents work in a control center.

Immigrant survivors of domestic and sexual violence living under the Trump administration are afraid to report the crimes against them, a recent study finds. Many fear that interactions with police, even to report a crime, will lead to deportation proceedings, amid a growing debate over whether local law enforcement should assist federal immigration agents and whether those immigration agents should be allowed to enforce at courthouses and other government venues.

This month, a coalition of civil rights groups, including the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, the Tahirih Justice Center, and the National Network to End Domestic Violence, published the results of a May of 2019 survey of 575 advocates and attorneys who work with affected communities. An overwhelming 76.25 percent of participants report that immigrant survivors are concerned about the potential ramifications of contacting police to report crimes, and 75 percent of participants say the survivors are afraid to go to court. More than half of the respondents say that they had worked with immigrants who dropped cases because they were too afraid to proceed.

"This survey shows us the robust chilling effect that recent immigration policy changes are having on immigrant survivors of violence," Archi Pyati, chief of policy for the Tahirih Justice Center, writes in an email.

The Trump administration has, throughout its tenure, pushed for greater cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents. Further compounding the fears that discourage survivors from seeking justice is Immigration and Customs Enforcement's practice of detaining immigrants at courthouses and government offices while they are actively trying to cooperate with authorities and sometime even seeking legal means of entry into the country. ICE has detained survivors at courthouses as they tried to pursue cases against their assailants.

The survey of advocates and attorneys offers a rare insight into the way that immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse are responding to those developments. The number of survivors who do not come forward is, by nature, difficult to quantify. United States Citizenship and Immigration Service statistics show the number of applications for U Visas—which allow immigrant abuse victims to remain in the country while they cooperate with authorities—declined last year for the first time since the visa's inception. Whereas the number of applications had grown steadily in previous years, only 34,967 people applied for the status in 2018—2,320 less than the previous year.

Beyond that statistic, it is difficult to ascertain how many survivors are opting not to come forward.

"It's not easy data to come by at the survivor level of course," explains Monica McLaughlin, public policy director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, an advocacy group. "We reached out to the folks with which we have contact, lay advocates and legal advocates. It's their impression of what's been happening, their reflection on what they're hearing from survivors. It's not survivor-level data, but it's as close as we can get."

Cooperations between local police and immigration agents make it less likely for survivors to come forward—both to see the protection of the law and for their cases to be counted by government and civil society groups researching the scope of the problems they face.

"When law enforcement is seen as collaborating with ICE, which, as people know, is prioritizing their work in separating families, no matter how compelling the circumstances, local law enforcement is perceived as unsafe, and definitely not a resource," says Grace Huang, policy director of Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence. "Abusers and perpetrators take advantage of this, and victims regularly report that their abusers tell them that they won't be believed, or if they call police they will be deported. With all of the publicity and news reports about families being separated on a regular basis, and the messaging from the administration that no one is exempt from enforcement, victims have no reason to believe their abusers' threats are untrue."

The new study paints a picture of survivors already living in the U.S. and their inability to access the protection of the law, but the Trump administration has also faced criticism for its handling of domestic violence victims coming to the U.S. from abroad. In June of last year, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions released an interim decision in which he found that domestic violence does not constitute a sufficient basis for an asylum claim in the U.S. A federal judge overturned that decision in December.

"The administration is disregarding and undermining the purposes and intent of the Violence Against Women Act, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and U.S. obligations under international law protecting those fleeing gender-based persecution, to protect victims," Huang says. "Seen in the larger context, the administration is deliberately shutting out women, children, LGBTQ individuals, religious minorities, and people of color from access to safety and basic fairness, whether it relates to civil rights, health care, or reproductive decision making and autonomy."

A key takeaway of the survey is the administration's poor record on domestic violence, Huang adds. "The administration's policies are supporting perpetrators and predators in continuing to hurt others, and undermining the ability of immigrant victims to recover and escape violence, which has long-term consequences for not only them and their children, but all of us."