Here's the chilling effect when ICE targets domestic violence victims

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The accounts vary about where it happened. Competing reports on the arrest of an undocumented trans woman in Texas have placed it either inside a court room or just outside of it, but neither dispute that she was detained by ICE agents shortly after filing a protective order against an allegedly abusive partner.

“We were stunned that ICE would go to these lengths for someone that is not a violent criminal,” El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal, whose office represents victims seeking protective orders, told local news outlet KFOX.

But the circumstances of the arrest alarmed for her another reason: “I’m suspicious that the tip may have come from the abuser, who knew precisely where the victim would be at that time and date since he had received notice to be in that courtroom as well.”


Bernal is speaking on a hunch, though it's a familiar one to service providers and victim advocates who work with undocumented immigrant women.

"They make a lot of threats that they'll report you. They'll say that you can't call the police or go to court, which are really big myths," said Rachel Goldsmith, assistant vice president of domestic violence shelters at Safe Horizon, a service provider in New York City. "They may tell you, 'Oh I know the laws in this country and you don't.' It's a common tactic of power and control."


These tactics are common enough in abusive mixed-status relationships that domestic violence organizations have made checklists that all read the same. Materials from Futures Without Violence and Casa de Esperanza both warn of abusers "threatening deportation or withdrawal of petitions for legal status." They might destroy legal documents or different forms of identification to keep victims fearful and isolated. To be undocumented in the United States is to in some ways be in a constant state of precarity, and abusers know and exploit this.


Domestic violence cuts across all kinds of factors, but power operates differently depending on the context, and the threat of deportation—and aggressive enforcement measures like raids—can be powerful weapons against undocumented women. In one survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 35% of Latina survivors reported experiencing increased fear as a result of the political climate around immigration enforcement.

"Of course a case like this will bring fear," Goldsmith said. And because stories like this spread quickly by word-of-mouth, it "could absolutely make people fearful to come forward."


And so service providers like Goldsmith are trying to put out a message in response to the raids: "You have rights in this country, even if you're undocumented." They are coordinating with immigration clinics and legal offices to try to stay on top of this climate of fear, which seems to be a feature and not a bug of high-profile raids like the ones that happened across the country last week.

"Things are changing all the time. Things come out, we get new information," Goldsmith said. "It's almost a constant battle to keep up… What it really does is create a culture of uncertainty and a culture of fear, particularly for people who are undocumented."