Power

Undocumented, abused, and silenced

Victims of domestic violence are suffering in new ways under Trump’s immigration policies.

Power

Undocumented, abused, and silenced

Victims of domestic violence are suffering in new ways under Trump’s immigration policies.
Power

Undocumented, abused, and silenced

Victims of domestic violence are suffering in new ways under Trump’s immigration policies.

During the third week of Donald Trump’s presidency, federal immigration officers arrested nearly 700 undocumented immigrants in a series of raids nationwide. “Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!” Trump declared on Twitter on February 12, just days after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested immigrants outside church shelters in Virginia, and inside hospitals and courthouses in Texas. Among those “others” picked up by ICE that week was Irvin González, a 33-year-old transgender woman who was detained in El Paso, Texas, on February 9. (In ICE documents, she is referred to as both Irvin and Ervin González; her attorney and advocates have not mentioned any other aliases.) That morning, a local judge granted González a protective order against her physically abusive ex-boyfriend; less than an hour later, González left the building in federal custody, flanked by immigration officers. The El Paso Times reported last week that González now faces 10 years in federal prison on an illegal re-entry charge.

González’s arrest adds another variable of fear to the chaos Trump has caused regarding immigration: that undocumented survivors of domestic violence will be dissuaded from seeking justice against their abusers. “There’s a chilling effect for survivors,” said Virginia Goggin, director of legal services at the Anti-Violence Project. “Among people who are undocumented, I’ve seen an increase in people saying, ‘I’m not going to report. I’m afraid. Will ICE take me away?’ In all honesty, we can’t say that nothing will happen to them.”

In the months leading up to her protective order hearing, González, who is originally from Mexico, filed three police reports detailing allegations of abuse by her boyfriend, Mario Alberto De Avila. De Avila had allegedly choked and punched González on multiple occasions and had once thrown a knife at her, González’s immigration attorney, Melissa Untereker, told me.

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“I felt very safe and protected in the court,” González told The New Yorker through Untereker shortly after her arrest. But then González received some surprise news: An ICE agent, dressed in plain clothes, was present at her hearing. After González’s hearing ended, her case worker reportedly told her, “We are going to start walking, and then ICE is going to arrest you.” Advocates working with González believe De Avila tipped ICE off about her location.

Isolating undocumented victims by threatening to call immigration is a common abuse tactic.

“I just don’t know how you could surmise anything else,” Lucila Camarena Flores, supervisor of the El Paso County Attorney’s Protective Order Unit, said. “He’s the only person who had that information, because he was served with it. He was given information regarding the hearing, the date, the time, the floor.”

Camarena Flores said that once González exited the courtroom, the pair of officers “immediately stepped up to her. The agent who had been in the courtroom started speaking to her in Spanish, asked her name, if she had paperwork that gave her status,” she said. “They showed her some sort of badge … Once they asked her those questions, the same agent put his hand on the crook of her elbow and started walking her out.”

For at least a week before her protective order hearing, González had been staying at the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence in El Paso. According to an ICE affidavit first obtained by the El Paso Times, immigration officers were informed of González’s whereabouts on February 2. That same day, De Avila was arrested for violating his probation, The New Yorker reported.

Although Camarena Flores said that De Avila was not present at the February 9 hearing, John Urquidi, a Border Patrol agent, said in the affidavit that agents “were conducting surveillance” outside the courthouse when, around 9:30 a.m., they “observed González exiting” the building. Urquidi also misgendered González throughout the affidavit, referring to her as “he” and “him,” and to De Avila as “his boyfriend.” Surveillance footage obtained by the El Paso Times shows two plainclothes ICE officers entering the courthouse shortly before 8:30 a.m. and taking the elevator to the building’s 10th floor, where protective order hearings are held. An hour later, the video shows González exiting the building with the officers, one of whom was guiding her out and holding her right arm.

Local officials and immigration advocates are now trying to determine whether ICE violated federal law while arresting González. “There’s a statute in the Violence Against Women Act that specifically attempts to prevent an abuser from tipping off law enforcement about someone’s immigration status if that person is seeking protection,” Congressman Beto O’Rourke said at a press conference on February 17. The previous day, O’Rourke, El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal, and County Judge Vanessa Escobar met with the special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security investigations to discuss González’s case. ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the names of the officers O’Rourke met with. As a result of González’s case, Escobar said, ICE would investigate inconsistencies in the report of González’s arrest and the message her arrest sent to the community. “They understand the boundaries between doing their job and community safety,” Escobar said.

Despite the provisions O’Rourke cited, isolating undocumented victims by threatening to call immigration is a common abuse tactic. González told The New Yorker that De Avila had used her undocumented status against her in the past. “He would tell me that, if I reported him to the police, they would only believe him, because he is a U.S. citizen and not me,” she said.

“An abusive partner can create a narrative for a survivor: ‘No one will believe you, no one cares about you, your concerns aren’t real, you deserve what’s happening to you,’” said Andrew Sta. Ana, director of legal services at Day One NY, a nonprofit organization that works to educate young people about domestic violence and provides supportive services. These tactics are compounded for undocumented or transgender survivors of domestic violence, whose abusers can — and often do — use their marginalized identities against them. “There are a lot of stereotypes about transgender folks being deceitful, or about undocumented folks pulling one over on the rest of the system, and that’s dangerous,” Sta. Ana said. “When these powerful stereotypes are allowed to creep in, they automatically challenge the credibility of the victim, and that discourages people from seeking protection.”

According to a 2009 report by Futures Without Violence, immigrant women — particularly those from Latin American and Asian countries — are drastically overrepresented among domestic violence-related homicides in the United States. Poverty, limited English proficiency, social isolation, and immigration status are the most common barriers that impede immigrant women from leaving abusive situations, the report claims.

Despite federal protections, like the VAWA provisions O’Rourke cited and a special visa allocated for undocumented victims of violent crimes, called a U-visa, fear of deportation prevents many undocumented victims of domestic violence from coming forward about their abuse. In a 2015 study by Emily Sellers published in the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review suggests that a lack of resources — including potential financial dependence on their abuser and a lack of access to social services — along with fear of deportation, leaves undocumented immigrant women particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. Oftentimes, a combined lack of resources, fear for their children’s safety, and fear of deportation prevent undocumented domestic violence survivors from reporting their abusers.

At the February 17 press conference, both O’Rourke and Bernal maintained that González’s arrest was not indicative of a new era of more stringent immigration enforcement. “In my 23 years at the courthouse, it’s the first time I have ever witnessed this kind of event, and I have every expectation that we won’t be witnessing it again any time in the near future,” Bernal said before assuring domestic violence survivors — including those who are undocumented — that they should continue to feel safe reporting crimes committed against them.

“This is not an order coming from the new administration. This is not a new directive,” O’Rourke said.

Under the Obama administration, González would have still been considered a priority for deportation due to her criminal record. In fact, according to ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa, González had been deported six times since 2010 and is being charged with illegal re-entry. “González also has a lengthy criminal history, with at least eight convictions on charges including false imprisonment, assault, larceny, domestic violence, and illegal re-entry,” Zamarripa said.

“This is not an order coming from the new administration. This is not a new directive.”

From ICE’s perspective, González’s multiple re-entry charges made her a clear priority for deportation — even before Trump expanded the definition of “criminal alien” — but her advocates say those re-entry attempts are indicative of the acute violence González faces as a transgender woman of color.

“Ms. González has suffered insurmountable incidences of violence,” said Isa Noyola, director of programs at the Transgender Law Center. “She’s been surrounded by violence, from living in Mexico to her journey here, to what she encountered with her perpetrator, the person who has caused this relationship more violence. And it’s seen as a mistake, as, ‘Oh, there needs to be better training for ICE.’ The severity of the situation, the lack of acknowledgement of the violent context for trans women in this case, is ridiculous.” Mexico, where González is from, has one of the highest documented rates of transgender murders in the world, and most hate crimes against the Mexican LGBT community are not investigated, a 2016 report issued by the Transgender Law Center and Cornell University Law School found. Between 2007 and 2012, 164 transgender Mexicans were murdered; the majority of them were trans women, the report says.

“She is a victim,” González’s immigration attorney, Melissa Untereker, said. “She was coming forward and helping law enforcement detect this activity, potentially helping move forward with the prosecution of her abuser, and she herself was detained and apprehended by ICE. You can’t conflate the fact that she has a criminal history. You can’t say that someone is not a victim just because they have a past.”

Since González has been deported before, she is being placed into reinstatement of removal proceedings and isn’t eligible for political asylum. Instead, she is applying for withholding of removal and protections under the Convention Against Torture, which requires Untereker to prove that her client is more likely than not to be tortured in her country of origin in the event that she is deported. “Those applications have slightly higher standards of proof, but they still encapsulate the same idea: This person is afraid to return to their home country and is seeking protection under U.S. law and international law,” Untereker said. Compared to political asylum, withholding of removal has a higher burden of proof and weaker benefits — if González receives this form of relief, she will not be placed on a path to U.S. citizenship. González is also applying for a U-visa, which requires her to petition for a "waiver of inadmissibility,” since she has a prior criminal history.

For U-visa applicants, the burden of proof is also high. Undocumented victims of certain violent crimes — including sexual assault and domestic violence — have to first report the crime to police, then receive certification from local law enforcement, before they can begin the actual application process, attorney Virginia Goggin told me. Only 10,000 U-visas are granted a year, applicants don’t get a work permit for filing an application, “and the waiting list eats up those 10,000” available visas before new applicants are considered, Goggin said. As of last fall, there were 87,000 U-visa applications pending nationally, according to WNYC.

“Right now, the waiting period for immigration to basically look at somebody’s application is about four years,” Goggin told me, and in that period, U-visa applicants can still be detained and deported by ICE. “The government knows you’re here, they know you’ve applied, they know where you live, and you can still be deported,” she said. “A lot of times, there are survival crimes being committed, which can range from shoplifting to get food for your kids, to possibly even selling drugs. If they’re caught, that’s definitely an additional barrier.”

Because of these narrow protections, the decision to report violent crimes against them — domestic violence or otherwise — is not one undocumented immigrants make lightly, even if reporting could potentially result in a path to citizenship. “Many people have been afraid of coming forward because their immigration status was at risk,” said Angy Rivera, a member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an immigration advocacy group led by and for undocumented youth. “Additionally, if your abuser is also undocumented, justice for a survivor doesn’t necessarily mean their deportation.” Rivera, 26, is the star of the documentary No Le Digas A Nadie (Don’t Tell Anyone), which recounts her experience coming out as both undocumented and as a survivor of sexual assault.

In 2010, Rivera started AskAngy, an advice column for undocumented youth, to fill a void she saw in her community. She’s fielded questions on everything from driving without a license to reporting domestic violence and sexual assault. “Some of the questions have been about how to cope. Others have been about accessing support and resources,” Rivera said. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me if they think they should report,” Rivera said, “especially because I have a U-visa, which was a direct result of a crime that happened to me.”

The waiting period for immigration to look at somebody’s application is about four years.

Rivera immigrated to the United States when she was 4 years old and was undocumented until 2013. As a child, she was sexually assaulted by her stepfather, qualifying her for a U-visa, which she received in 2013. According to Rivera, U-visa applicants face similar hurdles that other victims of sexual and physical assault face when reporting crimes, particularly a disbelief from law enforcement, and the application process itself can be incredibly triggering. “When you experience trauma, your memories and sequence of events can be out of order. Recounting is difficult,” she said. “If you can’t remember something, it can make you feel like you’re lying or making it up, and since obtaining your papers depends on proving you’ve been victimized enough, recounting that can take away your agency.”

Sometimes, Rivera said, police officers and other law enforcement officials will claim victims are lying about their assault in order to obtain legal status. “There’s nothing to gain by lying about being assaulted. The amount of evidence needed to apply for a U-visa is so much, some people are left out,” she said. Even when you’re a victim, she said, “nobody believes you. Nobody wants to support you.” Now that these already fragile protections are under attack by ICE, it’s likely that fewer undocumented immigrants will report violent crimes against them.

U-visas and similar protections are intended to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crimes, cooperate with law enforcement, and to protect them from violence, but Rivera and other immigration advocates say these protections aren’t expansive enough, especially since they only address interpersonal violence.

“If you face violence at the hands of police or immigration officers, would you qualify for a U-visa?” Rivera said. “That’s also violence! It’s scary to think that the people you’re supposed to be reporting these crimes to have so much power and control over you. They can kill you, they can deport you, but we’re still encouraged to report crimes against us.”

Gabriela Del Valle is a journalist.