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Why Undocumented Immigrants Stay in Abusive Relationships

For many women living in the US illegally, fear of the police is greater than the fear of their abusive partners.

Margarita outside her home in Austin, Texas. Photo by Meredith Hoffman

For years, Margarita's husband regularly threw her to the ground, kicking and punching her, and came home drunk and high on cocaine, yelling in front of their kids. But she didn't report the abuse for years. Even after her siblings watched him beat her on the sidewalk and called the police, Margarita refused to press charges, so he spent just one night in jail. She was afraid that, as an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in Austin, Texas, law enforcement would deport her if she reported the abuse.


"I didn't know what would happen to me since I was undocumented," said Margarita, who asked to be identified only by first name, for safety reasons. "I was afraid of the police."

Then one Sunday afternoon in 2004—after the couple had been married 17 years—Margarita says her husband banged her head with a telephone and continued to hit her, harder than he ever had before.

"I called the police, but when they arrived, my husband had scratches on him, so he said I had been violent. They arrested and handcuffed me first, and I insulted the cop," Margarita told me from the cramped two-bedroom apartment she now shares with her five children."I was upset so I said, 'Free me, gringo.' He took me in to jail, and then they sent me to immigrant detention in San Antonio for three weeks."

Margarita's arrest was the beginning of what would become a decade-long battle to escape from domestic violence—a struggle that leaves many undocumented individuals vulnerable to abuse and without legal recourse.

"We can never tell a kid, 'If you call the police your mom isn't going to get deported.'" — Jessica Nunan

According to study published this month in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, undocumented immigrants are far less likely than legal immigrants to request help for domestic violence. Of the 2,000 immigrants surveyed for that research, 70 percent of those who were undocumented said they would not contact law enforcement if they were victims. Other studies have found nearly half of Latinos in the United States hesitate to report crimes for fear that law enforcement agents will report their immigration status, or the status of a loved one, to federal authorities.


"There are a lot of barriers for victims for domestic violence already, and when you add being undocumented, a whole other level exists. Unfortunately, the fear of deportation is one that is especially high," said Jessica Nunan, executive director of Caminar Latino, a Georgia-based non-profit aimed at helping Latino families overcome domestic violence. In the wake of January's deportation raids on the homes of many Central American migrants, Nunan said, immigrants have become increasingly reluctant to report abuse.

"Very recently we had raids occur with moms and children deported, so there was even more fear," Nunan said. "We had to say that, if they call the police, there is no guarantee they will be protected. We can never tell a kid, 'If you call the police, your mom isn't going to get deported.'"

As Margarita's case illustrates, when undocumented immigrants report domestic violence, abusers often manipulate the details to shift the blame back on the victim, taking advantage of their vulnerable legal status, said Lindsay Harris, a legal fellow with the American Immigration Council who has worked with immigrant domestic violence victims.

"This all goes back to power and control dynamics," Harris said. "Sometimes when a woman calls the police, her husband may have better command of English and can convince cops about his side of the story." She cited the case of a young client of hers, who had come to Baltimore from Cameroon and married a green-card holder.


"He continually abused her, so she called the police, but he convinced them she had come at him with a kitchen knife, so she was taken into immigrant detention," Harris said. "That's a classic example of when a user is able to manipulate a situation with law enforcement."

If law enforcement does arrest an individual on domestic violence charges, police can use their own discretion of how much information to share with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said Wendy Feliz, the American Immigration Council's communications director. Federal immigration officials can tell local precincts to hold immigrants in jail until they can be transferred to detention centers, as happened to Margarita.

Upon her release, Margarita said, she felt her only recourse was to return to her abusive home life. "I stayed with my husband because I had three kids and didn't know what to do. I'd see a cop and feel fear, trauma, and like they were going to take me in, and I developed anxiety and couldn't sleep," she told me. "I had no more hope. I thought I'd be deported."

In 2005, Margarita's husband attacked her again. This time, she reacted by throwing a ketchup bottle at him, alerting the neighbors, who called the police. Margarita was arrested again and held in custody for a few weeks—but her husband was eventually convicted of assault and imprisoned for three years before being deported to Mexico in 2008. She was relieved, but she suddenly found herself with no one to help support her large family.


"The person doing the abuse will say, 'If you call police, I'll be on fast track for deportation,' and if that person is the main breadwinner, it's a problem," said immigration attorney Tracie Klinke, who works with domestic violence victims. "A mother has to ask herself if being beaten up once or twice a month is worth it to have shelter over her children's head."

After reporting domestic violence, an immigrant has the opportunity to seek protected status to remain legally in the US, per the Violence Against Women Act. A victim can apply for a U visa—a special visa granted to foreigners who have suffered significant abuse and help authorities investigate or prosecute the crime—but the process of obtaining this status is both lengthy and difficult. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) grants a maximum of 10,000 U visas each year, but the visas are in such high demand, it can take years for the agency to process an application. According to USCIS data, there were [63,762 applications pending]( and Studies/Immigration Forms Data/Victims/I918uvisastatisticsfy2015_qtr4.pdf) in 2015, meaning most applications went on a wait list—and the list continues to grow each year.

"Presuming 10,000 people come off that list per year, it's a six-year wait for anyone who gets added now—and that's assuming the wait list doesn't grow, which is unrealistic," Klinke said. "Over the years, we've seen a significant increase of U-visas filed, so we've run up against a significant backlog. Then it takes one and a half to two years for a case to be reviewed and during this time a person has no ability to apply for a work card or anything."


In an email, USCIS spokesman Timothy Counts told VICE that many individuals on the wait list for U visas can apply to live and work temporarily in the US.

"Those individuals who are on the wait list and are in the United States are normally being granted deferred action, which allows the person to remain here and gives them the opportunity to apply for work authorization," Counts said. "USCIS will begin issuing the next 10,000 U visas on October 1, 2016, at the start of fiscal year 2017. Wait list cases still remaining after the FY2017 cap has been met will stay on the wait list until a new visa allotment becomes available."

In order to qualify for U visa in the first place, though, a victim must obtain a signature from law enforcement that confirms she or she has helped investigate or prosecute a crime. According to a 2014 report from researchers at DePaul University, certain police departments in the US have policies against signing these applications. The reasons for this are not clear, but police departments cited in the report maintained that they had "the right to deny or refuse any application."

"Not every law enforcement agency will sign applications, and they're the gatekeeper," Klinke said. "Two-thirds of the time I'm able to work with law enforcement and one-third of the time they won't cooperate. It's different agency by agency."

In his email, Counts confirmed that U visa applications require a signed certification from a law enforcement agency, and he said that the federal agency has "no role or authority as to whether a law enforcement agency signs a certification."

"Law enforcement has the discretion on whether to sign a certification, and the investigating and/or prosecuting law enforcement agency has the ultimate authority to make this decision," he wrote.

Margarita said that, fortunately, the Travis County Sheriff's Department did sign off on her U visa application, which USCIS approved, but she is still waiting for the actual document. (ICE and the Austin Police Department did not immediately return a request for comment about Margarita's case.) Still, she says she feels "very lucky" to finally live in peace.

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If you, or someone you know, is suffering abuse, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website or call the hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.