By Michelle Polek
A woman who is also an undocumented immigrant was recently arrested in El Paso, Texas. The impetus for her arrest? She had been seeking a protection order to keep herself safe from her abuser. The survivor’s lawyer noted that it was very possible that the woman’s abuser had provided the tip to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that she would be in the courtroom that day.
When I read about this for the first time, the words swirled in front of me. My stomach dropped. Anger and helplessness swelled on behalf of all the program participants we work with: the survivors who are navigating fear of the immigration system on top of the daily trauma that violence brings.
Domestic violence is an issue that affects all communities. The intersection of domestic violence and immigration status, however, creates additional obstacles for survivors – and more tools for abusers
Threats and intimidation around deportation are ugly but coldly effective ways that abusers hold power over survivors. If the abuser has legal status and is a survivor’s only means to obtaining status, abusers may withdraw or threaten to withdraw that support. Survivors are often isolated in their new country without a support network, and other immigrants in the community may fear becoming involved with helping survivors – threats of deportation can extend to them and their families, too. Regardless of their own legal status, abusers may threaten to report undocumented survivors to ICE, creating a climate of fear that at any moment, the survivor might be arrested and deported. And abusers often triumphantly keep their children.
The children of survivors also suffer when the threat of deportation is so tangible. They may themselves be undocumented and included in the abuser’s threats of deportation. They may be living daily with the anxiety that at any moment, their parent will be taken away.
There’s no reference to children in the El Paso arrest. However, this survivor has another important layer of oppression to her experience: she is a transgender woman. I mention this aspect of her identity because it is important to recognize that transgender women (particularly transgender women of color) experience violence at a disproportionate rate, including in their relationships. In 2012, 14 percent of all victims of domestic violence homicides were transgender women of color.
I am grieving the fact that, in this moment, I feel that I can’t ethically encourage undocumented survivors to seek protection orders as a way to stay safer. This arrest has created a wave of fear that is echoing across families and networks of survivors and communities with undocumented loved ones. When we make conditions unsafe for survivors to report violence, we are empowering the people who are perpetrating that violence. We are sending a clear message to survivors that their safety is not a priority to us.
This is unacceptable.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, SafeChoice is here to help. Our hotline is available 24/7 at 360-695-0501. You can walk into our community office (located at 3609 Main Street) to meet with an advocate from Monday-Friday, 9am-3pm. All of our advocates have immediate access to translators over the phone. We also have a Spanish bilingual advocate, Beatriz Velasquez, who can be reached at 360-906-9148.