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How the Trump Administration Is Leaving Domestic Violence Victims to Fend for Themselves, Both at Home and Abroad

Immigration authorities are now making it dangerous for non-citizen abuse victims to seek legal protections from their aggressors.

Not long after it ruled against helping domestic abuse victims abroad, the Trump administration is now creating a hostile environment for abused immigrants living in the United States who are seeking help.

Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested an immigrant woman and her 16-year-old son at a North Carolina courthouse after preparations for a case against the woman's ex-fiancé, whom the two accuse of domestic violence, ABC News reported.

Immigration authorities made a similar arrest in Texas in 2017, weeks after President Donald Trump's inauguration. In both instances, rights groups voiced concerns that the arrests would discourage abuse victims from seeking the legal protections that sometimes save lives.

Sandra Park, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project, wrote in a recent blog post that the courthouse arrests "undermine law enforcement." Park cited an ACLU report that showed a majority of police officers surveyed felt courthouse immigration enforcement undermines their efforts to protect communities from crime.

There are long-standing protections in place for non-citizen victims of domestic abuse—protections that appear to have become useless under the present administration. The U-Visa, established by Congress in 2000, allows victims of domestic abuse and other crimes to remain in the U.S. while they seek help through the criminal justice system. But in practice, the U-Visa doesn't do much to make sure non-citizens are deported while seeking legal protection from assault.

"U-Visas are supposed to protect victims of crime who cooperate with law enforcement, but there is a huge backlog in both obtaining visas and even getting work authorization as applications are pending," Park tells Pacific Standard. "People can be removed even if they have a U-Visa application under review."

The courthouse arrests in Texas and North Carolina, coupled with news of undocumented people being detained for deportation at regular check-ins with immigration authorities, send a message that non-citizen abuse victims face deportation if they attempt to apply for the visa at all.

Between Attorney General Jeff Sessions' ruling in June barring foreign abuse victims from claiming domestic abuse as a reason for asylum in the U.S. and immigration enforcement practices discouraging victims from seeking help from law enforcement, analysts say the system is, at present, actually geared to keep the most vulnerable immigrants in harm's way.

The courthouse arrests are "consistent with an administration that lacks integrity in immigration enforcement," says Jean Reisz, a University of Southern California law professor. "It is an extension of policies that erode human and civil rights and target vulnerable populations, the majority of whom have few resources and are women and children."

Domestic violence victims' defenders say the White House is guilty of a breech of basic human decency.

"Turning a blind eye to anyone trying to seek safety no matter their birthplace, culture, or position is a moral transgression," says Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an advocacy group. "Our nation must continue to lead in providing safety for women seeking protection from domestic violence."

Owing to both a persistent culture of silence on domestic abuse and the silencing of undocumented victims, it is impossible to know the scope of the people at home and abroad affected by domestic violence and unable to seek the U.S.'s legal protections, the analysts remind. According to statistics compiled by Glenn's NCADV, one in three American women, and one in four men, experience some form of physical abuse from an intimate partner in their lifetime. While abuse is commonly dismissed as a greater problem faced in countries where women have less legal protections against abuse, the data shows that domestic violence is pervasive in the U.S. too—among citizens and non-citizens.

Analysts observe that what ties the administration's treatment of abuse victims at home and abroad is the administration's ignorance of—or unwillingness to understand—the nature of domestic violence.

In June, Sessions observed that asylum is granted to persecuted distinct social groups and that, as far as domestic violence victims are concerned, "the mere existence of shared circumstances would not turn those possessing such characteristics into a particular social group." But Reisz describes international abuse victims as well as undocumented abuse victims in the U.S. as a class facing a distinct phenomenon in their respective countries of residence.

"Basically abused immigrant women, children, and others who are fleeing abuse because they cannot avail themselves of the protection of the government in their home countries are being denied asylum here in the U.S., and those immigrants who are being abused within the U.S. may not avail themselves of protection for fear of deportation," she says. "This sends the message that immigrant lives are simply worth less than U.S. citizen lives who will be protected from domestic violence."

Not only is the U-Visa not functioning under the Trump administration, Reisz says, but it appears that the White House is actively working against the congressional legislation that established it as a means of protecting abuse victims in the first place.

"The U-Visa was meant to encourage cooperation with law enforcement authorities by immigrants who are victims of violent crime," she says. "Arresting those who are going to court to cooperate defeats the purpose."