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Undocumented domestic abuse survivors may not seek help after courthouse ICE arrest

Immigration and domestic violence advocates have condemned the arrest of an undocumented Texas woman last week as she left a court hearing in which she was seeking a protective order against her abuser. They’re also wondering what it means for other undocumented domestic abuse survivors.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested the woman outside an El Paso courtroom; one ICE agent attended the proceedings while another waited outside the room, said El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal in a Thursday press call about the incident. After the hearing concluded, the agents escorted the woman from the building and placed her in federal custody.


She remains in jail in El Paso.

Fear and uncertainty are reportedly already pervasive in immigrant communities in the wake of ICE raids nationally that resulted in almost 700 arrests in a five-day period. And the El Paso arrest will make undocumented abuse survivors even more unsure of whether they should leave abusive relationships, said Monica McLaughlin, deputy director of public policy for the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Threatening undocumented victims with deportation, or telling them that they can’t get help without being deported, is a “really classic abuse tactic,” McLaughlin said. “If what [survivors have] been hearing from their perpetrator is then [what] they see come to fruition via another survivor, I think it makes them much less likely to seek help and assistance in the future.”

Detaining undocumented people who are seeking to escape domestic abuse isn’t unprecedented. In 2012, a Colorado woman who called police due to a domestic violence incident ended up being detained for two weeks by immigration agents. Yet the fact that the El Paso woman was allegedly arrested in a courthouse after her hearing for a protective order is unheard of, said Human Right Watch researcher Clara Long.

After Donald Trump’s election, some anti-domestic violence advocates started wondering if it’s a good idea to tell undocumented immigrants to turn to law enforcement, McLaughlin and immigration attorney Laura Polstein said, and this arrest only inflames those worries. Advocates often walk survivors through their options, letting them take the lead and ultimately decide what to do, but, “it is harder when the landscape is shifting and you can’t guarantee, ‘Hey, you won’t be picked up by ICE at this court,’” McLaughlin said.


Calls to the El Paso Center Against Sexual & Family Violence — where the survivor had been staying prior to her arrest and detention, according to an ICE affidavit — have spiked as undocumented abuse victims want to know if they’re safe from law enforcement, Stephanie Karr, the center’s executive director, said in the Thursday press conference.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence now recommends that advocates helping survivors figure out what to do should consider whether the survivors have a criminal record, as the El Paso survivor allegedly did. In an emailed statement, an ICE spokesperson said the woman had previously been convicted of crimes including domestic violence, larceny, and illegal re-entry to the United States after deportation.

The El Paso survivor’s boyfriend had battered her on at least three occasions, Bernal said; in one incident he allegedly chased her with a knife and threw it at her.

Under the Violence Against Women Act, if immigrants are abused by a relative who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder, they can apply for a green card without needing the abuser to file for benefits on their behalf. (Typically, they’d need those relatives to petition for them.) If immigrants are the victims of a crime and help law enforcement investigate that crime, they may be able to apply for what’s called a “U visa,” which allows them to stay in the country legally. And immigration status is not a barrier to seeking help from most domestic violence shelters and services.

“These options, these legal remedies, still exist,” said Rachel Goldsmith, who oversees a number of Safe Horizon domestic shelters. “They have not gone anywhere, despite the change in climate.”