Trump's Immigration Crackdown Is Pushing Victims Of Abuse Underground

Immigrants who face sexual assault and domestic violence are avoiding police and dropping court cases, a new survey shows.
Undocumented victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are afraid of calling the police, a new survey finds.
Undocumented victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are afraid of calling the police, a new survey finds.
Todor Tsvetkov via Getty Images

The woman was calling because she was frightened.

Her partner had become emotionally and physically abusive after the birth of their son, she told an advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

She had recorded his threats on her phone but was too scared to involve law enforcement. He was a U.S. citizen, she explained, while she had conditional permission to stay in the United States through former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. She didn’t want to be deported.

Her story is not an anomaly. Immigrants are increasingly reluctant to report domestic violence and sexual assault, citing fears of deportation under President Donald Trump, according to a survey released this month of 715 victim advocates and attorneys in 46 states and the District of Columbia.

In April, a coalition of national organizations working to end domestic violence and sexual assault conducted the “2017 Advocate and Legal Service Survey Regarding Immigrant Survivors” to get hard data on how the country’s changing immigration policies were affecting their clients. Nearly 80 percent of advocates reported that survivors had expressed concerns about contacting police. Forty-three percent of advocates said they had personally worked with a survivor who dropped a civil or criminal case because they were too scared to continue. Three-quarters of respondents reported that survivors were worried about going to court.

The survey’s findings offer even more evidence for what advocates and law enforcement leaders predicted: Trump’s immigration crackdown is driving undocumented victims of crime underground.

“Being subjected to domestic violence is scary and terrifying, but so is being detained and deported,” said Monica McLaughlin, deputy director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “If folks are not comfortable asking for help and support in a crisis, it means they are isolated and even more vulnerable.”

In his first week as president, Trump signed two executive orders on immigration that empowered immigration agents, drastically broadened the scope who could be targeted for deportation and called on local law enforcement to take on a greater role in federal immigration enforcement. After Trump’s first 100 days were over, the results were clear: Immigration arrests were up nearly 40 percent.

“It’s disheartening to see that there is now an even greater fear for victims and survivors to ask for help.”

- Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline

McLaughlin said that many victims were spooked after hearing about the case of an undocumented transgender woman who was arrested in a Texas courthouse while seeking a domestic violence protective order against her ex-boyfriend. “If the perception is that going to court is a dangerous thing, it’s going to change behavior,” she said. In practice, she said, that means fewer victims calling police, filing reports, and cooperating with authorities. And for the assailants, it means they can keep “abusing with impunity,” she said.

Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said many victims were calling in with anxiety about how to get assistance without endangering themselves. “There is so much fear already present in abusive relationships,” she said. “It’s disheartening to see that there is now an even greater fear for victims and survivors to ask for help.”

Abusers can capitalize on that fear, threatening to turn their partners over to immigration authorities if they report abuse. Last week, police arrested a Baltimore defense attorney on suspicion of trying to stop a rape victim from testifying. He allegedly said that she risked deportation by the Trump administration if she did so.

At least two police chiefs have warned that the current political climate is pushing undocumented victims of crime into the shadows. In Los Angeles, Police Chief Charlie Beck said reports of rape among the city’s Latino population have fallen 25 percent, compared to the same period last year. In Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo said rape reports by Latinos were down 42.8 percent from last year.

If victims are afraid to report, it undermines public safety for the whole community, said Rosie Hidalgo, Director of Public Policy for Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network. “Compelling increased entanglement between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement will erode community policing efforts,” she said.

Good policing relies on trust, explained David Alan Sklansky, Stanford University professor and former federal prosecutor. “If victims of crimes don’t feel comfortable reporting the crime or cooperating with police in investigating the crime, it means the police can’t do their job,” he said. “You can’t keep a city safe when victims and witnesses don’t trust you.”


Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.


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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline .

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