Since President Trump took office, the hotlines of the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston, which advocates for victims of sexual and domestic violence, have been inundated with calls.
But the women and men reaching out aren’t just reporting instances of abuse. Executive Director Anne Chandler says callers queries center on one of Trump’s biggest domestic priorities: immigration. During routine screening calls, those seeking help—from sex trafficking victims to those escaping abuse—have asked lawyers if they will report them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“One caller that I was handling—I was simply just trying to coordinate follow up with that client and explaining that I wasn’t going to get to her matter for another week,” Chandler recalls. “She paused and said ‘Are you going to report me to ICE?’ In the past 19 years, I haven’t had a caller ask me at the end of a conversation. The community is scared.”
The Trump Administration has not made life easy for America’s undocumented immigrants. To a large extent, that’s by design. One of President Trump’s first acts in office was signing a pair of executive orders that beefed up enforcement and expanded the list of deportable offenses.
But while Trump has long said he’s most interested in criminals and gang members, the immigrant community has interpreted the president’s rhetoric and reports of increased enforcement, including the arrest of a woman seeking a protective order in an El Paso courthouse, to mean all are at risk. And that anxiety has translated into behavioral shifts among some of the most vulnerable immigrants, including those trapped in violent situations.
A recent survey of over 700 advocates and legal service providers found that 62% have observed an increase in immigration-related questions from survivors of violence. About three-fourths of those surveyed said immigrants have expressed concern about contacting police and appearing in court. “I know that there’s a survivor today who is not making the call or the neighbor is not making the call to 911,” says Chandler. “And I know that because of the phone calls I’m receiving and the client stories that I’m hearing from our attorneys. It’s not speculation.”
Homeland Security chief John Kelly has said being in the U.S. illegally doesn’t necessarily get you targeted. “It’s gotta be something else.” And according to data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement about 75% of the 41,000 individuals they’d arrested between January and April 2017 were criminals. Yet, that same data revealed a 150% increase in non-criminal arrests compared to the same period last year. Kelly says the so-called non-criminals are not innocents; they include multiple deportees and fugitives. “Seventy-five percent are indeed criminals,” he said. “The other 25% are not the valedictorians of their high school class.”
But concern about the law has already consumed the community. Libby Hasse, a staff attorney at Tahirih’s Houston branch, says she’s heard a lot from a client who is a survivor of sex trafficking who watches a lot of Spanish-language news and has shown concern about what’s happening in the state. “Pretty much every time I’ve talked to her she asks if she’s going to be deported now,” she says.
Law enforcement officials are noticing changes too. As of March in Los Angeles, police reported a 10% drop in reports of domestic violence and a 25% drop in reports of rape among the cities Latinos compared to the year before. The police department noticed no similar drops among other communities of color and it believes “deportation fears” may be keeping victims from the Hispanic community from coming forward. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo noted a 42.8% decline in rapes reported by Latinos compared to the year before and a 13% drop in all violent crime reported by Latinos.
“When you see this type of data, and what looks like the beginnings of people not reporting crime, we should all be concerned,” Acevedo said.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed a controversial law that allows police officers to ask about immigration status during lawful detainment. The law sparked a backlash from police chiefs in major cities who argued the law could make immigrants distrust police and keep them from identifying criminals throughout their communities. It’s happened before, says the Migration Police Institute’s Muzaffar Chishti. Under Arizona’s infamous “show me your papers” law, he says there was definitely an “erosion of trust” between communities and police. But Abbott has accused opponents of the law of fear mongering insisting that those who have not committed crimes have nothing to fear.
“The objective of SB 4 is to identify dangerous criminals, not detain hardworking families or innocent children,” he wrote in a recent op-ed with the sheriff of Hidalgo County and the McAllen police chief. Officials and activists have promised a “summer of resistance” in the lead up to its implementation on Sept. 1, but the atmosphere is already pretty contentious. Before the Texas legislative session ended, a fight broke out between a Republican and a Democratic lawmaker over the law’s protesters.
Despite the confusion, victims of crime are still protected under the law.
“When carrying out the immigration law enforcement mission, ICE remains sensitive to the needs of victims and witnesses of crimes. ICE officers will take into consideration if an individual is the immediate victim or witness to a crime in determining whether to take enforcement action,” ICE spokesman Jennifer Elzea says. “Particular attention is paid to victims of domestic violence, human trafficking or other serious crimes.” Crime victims and witnesses are also eligible for a special non-immigrant visa, the U-Visa, which was created for those who specifically for survivors who cooperate with law enforcement.
Ana, an undocumented woman from Mexico who survived years of abuse at the hand of her ex-boyfriend, has applied for a U-visa. About two years ago, she lived with an abusive boyfriend who beat her, raped her and threatened her life and the lives of her immediate family. He’d punch holes in the walls of their house, when he wasn’t using his force on her face and body, she says, and warned her that if she went to the police he’d hurt her young daughters.
“Anything that I had of value he would take it away from me,” she says. “But he also stole my dreams, he stole my hopes. He stole everything. I still live with the impact of that trauma. I still have nightmares. I’m not normal.”
She sought help from Casa de Esperanza, a Minnesota-based domestic violence advocacy organization. Through Casa, she went to support groups and shared her story. Their lawyers helped her through the process and went with her to court. Now, she’s anxiously waiting for her visa. She hopes that with it, that she would able to fulfill her dreams of getting an education and buying a house she can live in with her daughters. Her oldest, age 7, wants to get a dog, too. But she’s worried. And she’s afraid that women in situations similar to hers, those who don’t yet have the strength or resources to walk away, will be worse off than she is.
“These women are not only afraid of their abuser, but they have more and more fear,” she says. “You have men who are abusers who they feel more empowered to take advantage of their victims.”