Yvonne’s problems began several months ago when she started noticing bruises and swellings on the arms, face, and lips of her 16-year-old daughter. Yvonne (not her real name) kept asking her how it happened, but her daughter Raquel (also a pseudonym) offered unconvincing answers. When Yvonne finally figured out what was going on, she was horrified, and she contacted the local police in El Paso. In turn, they notified the County Attorney’s Office, which is responsible for obtaining legal protection for victims of family violence. From there, mention of Raquel’s injuries ended up in a federal court in San Antonio, hundreds of miles away.
That court was the site of a hearing requesting a preliminary injunction against Texas Senate Bill 4—SB4 for short. The newly passed state law is considered one of the harshest pieces of immigrant-related legislation in the country. It allows Texas police, sheriff deputies, and constables to question people about their immigration status, and if they’re undocumented, to call the Border Patrol and ICE. It also prohibits the officers’ bosses from telling them not to ask about status or contact federal authorities.
The law was set to go into effect on September 1, and this week a judge blocked many parts of it, including the prohibition on police chiefs and county sheriffs forbidding their officers from asking about immigration status. But the judge let stand a section that allows cops to ask, and to call immigration authorities. Under the injunction, they can still do this if their bosses don’t forbid it.
SB4 comes on the heels of sharply increased immigration law enforcement nationally since Donald Trump became president—including by ICE agents going into court houses and arresting people there. Texans who are undocumented immigrants, especially Latinos, are already afraid of what SB4 could do. The state does not allow them to have drivers licenses, and they’re already getting stopped on the border by state troopers for minor traffic infractions, then turned over to the Border Patrol when they can’t produce a license.
Around the state, police chiefs and other law enforcement officials have spoken out against SB4, saying it will make undocumented crime victims and witnesses hesitant to seek help. It could discourage people from driving, including to places that could save lives. These include courthouses, where domestic abuse victims—most of them women—go to seek protection.
Yvonne is from Mexico. She has lived half of her life in El Paso, undocumented. Her husband, who owns a small business, is a U.S. citizen, and her four children were born in El Paso—the youngest is a six-year-old girl. Raquel is the oldest. Last year she was a high school junior, with a boyfriend who she says at first seemed nice. But four months into the relationship, he started “checking my phone, asking for my social media passwords,” Raquel recalls. And he started battering her. He struck her arms, eye, and mouth. He threw her on the floor.
Yvonne and Raquel are close, so Yvonne noticed the injuries immediately. But, over and over, Raquel lied about how she’d been hurt. For instance, the swollen eye: “She told me she’d accidentally run into something,” Yvonne remembers. And the bruises: just klutziness, Raquel demurred. She didn’t dare tell her mom the truth.
“He knew [my mom is] undocumented,” Raquel says about the boyfriend. He’d found out after his family invited Raquel’s family to go camping in the mountains. A Border Patrol checkpoint separates those mountains from El Paso, and Yvonne would be arrested if she were to drive through it. When the boyfriend learned of Yvonne’s undocumented status, his threats to Raquel began: “If you tell anyone I’m hitting you, I’ll call immigration on your mother,” Raquel says he told her.
Yvonne didn’t find out about the threats until the day she asked Raquel why her lip was swollen and Raquel replied that she’d accidentally bitten it. “No, mom!” Raquel screamed as Yvonne forced her daughter’s mouth open, revealing a serious injury inside. That’s when Raquel finally told the truth, and explained that she’d lied out of fear that her mother would be deported.
After the police were called, Raquel got a forensic medical exam. Yvonne still cries when she remembers what the exam revealed: a massive, multicolored bruise on her daughter’s buttocks, bigger than a grapefruit. “My brothers and sister need her,” Raquel had thought when she’d kept her abuse secret. How would they live if she were deported?
This all happened this past October. By February, the El Paso County Attorney’s Protective Order Unit was ready for Yvonne appear in court, to support her daughter in making a legal case for the boyfriend to stay away from her. Yvonne was prepared to do that. Then something happened that threatened to change her mind.
On February 9, a transgender woman named Irvin Gonzalez went to court in El Paso to get a protective order. Gonzalez has a criminal past that included charges of mail fraud, forging financial instruments, and entering the U.S. several times after being deported. But she also had an abusive partner, and she was living in a domestic violence shelter. According to court filings she made, her partner had punched and kicked her, and chased her with a knife. She received a protective order at the end of her court hearing.
While the hearing was still in progress, according to county officials, an ICE agent was sitting behind Gonzalez. As she prepared to leave, two agents detained her. The County Attorney later guessed that Gonzalez’s ex-partner had tipped off ICE that Gonzalez would be in court. Local and national media soon reported on her arrest, and an uproar ensued as El Paso political leaders criticized ICE.
One was U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke. He later told the Albuquerque Journal and El Paso TV station KVIA that he’d met with local ICE and Homeland Security officials, who told him that agents would receive more training in the future, and that Gonzalez’s courthouse arrest had been an anomaly.
But throughout the country during the same period, ICE presence in courthouses appeared to be ramping up. By March, reports were emerging about immigrants arrested in California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, and New York City. ICE countered that it had been doing courthouse arrests for years. But in June, the Legal Aid Society of New York noted that there had been 38 arrests and attempted arrests in and outside state courtrooms so far this year—more than twice the number during the previous two years combined.
New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called the incursions “a shameful, predatory tactic that will make our city less safe and devastate the trust we have worked so hard to build in the immigrant community.” California’s chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, wrote a letter to the Trump administration, asking it to stop immigration agents from “stalking” the state’s courthouses. (In response, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly lambasted Cantil-Sakauye’s use of the word “stalking.”)
News about ICE agents in courthouses struck fear into immigrant women seeking protective orders against alleged abusers. In Denver in April, City Attorney Kristi Bronson said she’d had to dismiss prosecutions against four separate domestic violence suspects because the undocumented accusers feared they’d be identified by immigration authorities and arrested at the courthouse. Bronson also said reports of nine different crimes associated with domestic violence, including assault and violation of protective orders, were down 12% for Hispanics from January through April, even as they went up 4% for non-Latinos. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck reported that domestic violence reports by Latinos had dropped by 10%.
El Paso, too, saw a nosedive of these reports after Irvin Gonzalez’s February arrest at the courthouse. From January to May 2016, applications had increased 13% compared to 2015. But during the same time in 2017, applications plummeted—to 28% fewer than the previous year. The decrease started as a slow slide in January, the month Trump took office. It snowballed after ICE’s February courthouse action.
El Paso court personnel workers are forbidden from asking people about their immigration status. But El Paso’s population is more than 80% Latino, and County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal estimates that half the people who apply for protective orders lack authorization to be in the U.S. Her downtown office maintains satellite offices in far-flung parts of the city, including areas where many immigrants live. Satellite supervisors have been reporting many clients who ask if it’s safe to set foot in the downtown courthouse. Their question suggests that many battered and abused people aren’t asking at all, and instead are deciding not to apply for orders of protection.
And then there were the three immigrants who did apply before the ICE arrest, for themselves or for their children—but who later asked to have the cases withdrawn.
One of those immigrants was Yvonne.
Yvonne had received a date in late February to go to a court hearing with Raquel. But then Yvonne watched news of Irvin Gonzalez’s arrest, which included courthouse surveillance video of Gonzalez being hemmed in by male ICE agents. Yvonne started losing her nerve and told Raquel she didn’t want to go to court.
Both women contacted Lucila Flores, an assistant county attorney who at the time was trial-team chief of the Protective Order Unit. Flores told them that, with the community against ICE in the El Paso courthouse, the chances were slim that agents would reappear. Yvonne’s resolve returned and she went with Raquel to court. Raquel got her protective order. But Yvonne is still nervous.
Similar fears led El Paso County Attorney Bernal to file a declaration in the preliminary injunction suit against SB4. Her declaration included information about the three cases—including Yvonne’s and Raquel’s—of undocumented immigrants asking to withdraw their applications because they’re afraid of ICE. Bernal took the stand in San Antonio to testify about SB4. She joined officials from several other Texas cities, counties, and towns. All said the new law would hurt their communities.
(With the preliminary injunction now blocking much of SB4, the case against the law goes to New Orleans, to a higher court there, the Fifth Circuit. Its judges are notoriously conservative and are not expected to sympathize with the plaintiffs or with witnesses like Bernal. If the Fifth Circuit nullifies the injunction against SB4, the law will go back into effect. It could be in force for years, as opponents wind their way to the Supreme Court.)
“Under SB4,” Bernal’s declaration says, “every traffic stop has the potential for becoming an immigration stop…As recent events indicate, this increased enforcement effort will discourage victims from obtaining legal protections from violence to which they are entitled.”
There’s nothing to fear, argue SB4 supporters like Texas Governor Greg Abbott. He co-signed an op-ed piece published in late May in the San Antonio Express-News. It reminded readers of language in SB4 that prohibits law enforcement officers from asking someone about immigration status if the person is a crime victim.
But Texas immigrants already know that asking for assistance can get them deported. Immigration attorneys talk about their clients sitting in ICE detention centers—people who had car trouble or health emergencies on the road near the border, called 911, and waited for law enforcement help—only to be asked when the “help” arrived about their immigration status, then turned in to the Border Patrol.
Police and sheriff’s deputies in El Paso have for years been forbidden from asking about immigration status or calling the Border Patrol. But state troopers already do both, and El Paso’s major highways—as well as streets in poor, immigrant neighborhoods—are clotted with the troopers. They stop brown-skinned drivers for infractions as trivial as having tinted windows or a broken tail light, then they call immigration authorities. With SB4, the troopers will be joined by additional law enforcement officers who will be able to stop, ask, and call.
Up and down Texas’ border with Mexico, undocumented people are now saying they’re afraid to leave their neighborhoods, and sometimes even their homes. Yvonne and her family live in one such area.
Today, Raquel is receiving counseling to deal with the battering she experienced. Her ex-boyfriend was charged with assault, harassment, criminal trespass, and other crimes related to his alleged abuse. Raquel feels safe now, thanks to the help she got in court.
As for Yvonne, she’s feeling shaky. “I worry about every knock at the door,” she says. But she still ventures out her neighborhood when there’s something she needs to do. Leaving, she backs out of the driveway that faces her front door. Above the door, facing the street, is a bas-relief sculpture that gleams daily in the desert light as the sun rises and sets on the border. The sculpture is a big map of the state of Texas.
Debbie Nathan is based in Brownsville, Texas and freelanced this article for Splinter. She is also the investigative reporter for the ACLU of Texas.
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.