BIG BEND, Texas— “Avoid the kitchen, where there are knives,” says Regina Wilcox, the sexual assault program coordinator at the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend. “A lot of people will run into the bathroom and lock themselves in there. But they’re cornered in the bathroom.”

These are some of the survival tips that Wilcox and other staff at the crisis center offer victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other violent crimes.

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The center, which was opened in 1982 in a community center in the small Texas town of Alpine, has since expanded its services to three separate outposts that provide a much-needed resource in the vast expanse of Far West Texas.

In addition to counseling and legal services, volunteers at the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend hold workshops with women from communities along the border to teach them how to make crafts.
Sasha von Oldershausen

It's a region that includes the U.S.-Mexico border, where domestic violence can take on a new and awful dimension—one where victims can become trapped in abusive relationships due to their undocumented status in the United States.

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When "Rosa," a 32-year-old Mexican, moved to Presidio, Texas (population 6,000) in 2011 she said her boyfriend began to use her undocumented immigration status as a form of social control. With no friends or family to turn to in the United States, she sees gaining legal residency as her only way out.

“He knew that I didn’t have any documents and that I didn’t have any family here,” Rosa, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told me in Spanish. “He knew that I couldn’t go back to Mexico. So I had to do all the things he said. He said that I belonged to him.”

Now Rosa feels trapped. “I cut his hair, I cut his nails, I shave him, I clean his ears,” she said. “I need to be available when he wants to have sex with me at any time. I have to wear certain clothes that he wants and sometimes when I say that he’s hurting me, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t stop.”

According to Presidio Police Chief Marco Baeza, this type of abuse is not uncommon in the border region.

“One thing that I see all the time in cases where one of the spouses is undocumented, they’ll often get threatened by the abuser that they’ll get deported,” Baeza said. “Or the abuser will say, ‘If you call law enforcement, I’m going to call immigration and they’ll send you back.’”

Women in Presidio hold a candlelight vigil against domestic abuse
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The police chief added, “And when there’s children involved it makes it worse. Usually, the kids are U.S. citizens so the abuser will go as far as to say, ‘If you call law enforcement, you’ll get deported and the kids will stay here. You’ll never see your kids.’ Stuff like that.”

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He says victims in that type of abusive relationship are sometimes also less inclined to call the police out of fear that it will lead to deportation.

Baeza said that the number of domestic abuse cases he sees yearly has dropped significantly since he took his post in the early 2000s, a fact that he attributes to the unanticipated consequences of Texas’ “zero tolerance policy” toward domestic abuse.

Under that policy, a police officer must make an arrest if there is any probable cause that abuse has occurred. As a result, Baeza said, spouses who fear that an arrest might lead to immigration problems are less inclined to call the cops.

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For the advocates at the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend, helping victims of violence on the border means targeting the source of abuse itself. One of the most significant services they provide their clients is legal aid to acquire residency, which isn't always an easy feat under the current system.

The center did however manage to help Rosa apply for legal residency through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a 1994 law that allows immigrant victims of domestic violence to obtain immigration relief. Rosa has been able to file for an immigrant visa petition, and has since been granted a work permit.

But the wait for residency can take years. Six of the family crisis center's clients are in the process of applying for residency, while one other woman was recently granted residency after four years of waiting.

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For now, Rosa is waiting, working odd jobs and saving money for the future. She hopes that once she gets residency, she’ll eventually be be able to emancipate herself and her children from the abusive relationship.