For years, Yan endured brutal beatings and repeated rapes at the hands of her husband. An undocumented immigrant from Asia, she never called the police out of fear that she would be deported and forever separated from their child, who was born in the United States.
Her husband constantly told her as much, so she never sought help and felt trapped in her nightmare marriage. Ultimately, thinking she had nowhere to go and no one to turn to, Yan and her child returned to her country of origin, where at least she had her family to support her.
Undocumented immigrant victims of domestic violence are conditioned by their abusers to fear the police. An abuser will tell a victim that if she were to call the police, when the police arrive, he will tell them that she hit him, she’ll be arrested, deported and ultimately never see her children again.
With the enormous progress that the domestic violence movement has made in empowering victims to seek help such threats should be empty. However, Secure Communities – a controversial immigration enforcement program that allows federal authorities to screen fingerprints of those arrested by local police to identify undocumented immigrants -- lends credibility to abusers’ threats by making deportation a very real possibility.
The projected expansion of Secure Communities to every jurisdiction in the U.S. severely undercuts the advances made by advocates to empower battered immigrant women to seek help.
Heightened distrust of police
Only about 19 percent of undocumented domestic violence victims come forward to report their abuse to the police. Some fear deportation, while others have had negative experiences with police in their countries of origin.
For such women, it is not unusual to have previously called the police in their country of origin, only to be told that the abuse was a family matter, not requiring police involvement. Furthermore, such calls often enrage the abuser, putting the victim in even greater danger.
Often times, if abuse victims don’t already fear the police, abusers will convince victims they should be afraid of police. Part of the fear involves police procedures when officers respond to a domestic violence incident.
If both the victim and batterer have wounds (including defensive wounds on the batterer, such as scratches), the police must determine the primary aggressor. If the victim does not understand or speak enough English to explain the truth of the situation, the police may determine that there was mutual combat and arrest both parties. Even worse, the victim may be the only one taken into custody.
Consider what happened to Lin, a battered woman who emigrated to the U.S. with the help of her husband, a U.S. citizen. Upon her arrival, her once-loving husband became extremely abusive, beating her regularly and forcing her to perform unwanted sexual acts. There were threats to kill her, and at one point he pointed a gun to her head.
One day, after a sever beating, he called the police himself. Since he was over a foot taller than her and much stronger, he grabbed her hands and used them to hit himself. When the police arrived, because both Lin and her husband had red marks on them and Lin could not clearly explain what happened in her broken English, they were both arrested. She was later released without being charged, but not before being detained in a holding cell over an entire weekend.
The hope is that in situations like this, justice will prevail and the victim will be exonerated. However, the reality is that some victims are not able to resolve matters quickly at all.
Agatha, an undocumented immigrant originally from Latin America, was wrongfully arrested for domestic violence and had to go through an entire jury trial before being exonerated.
With her bail amount beyond what her family could afford, Agatha describes her incarceration as “the most horrifying” time of her life. She could not eat or sleep for fear of being deported and never seeing her children again. Had she been arrested when Secure Communities was in effect, her greatest fear might have become a reality, even had she been acquitted.
In situations like Agatha’s, the victim finds that in reaching out for help she risks being ripped away from her children and possibly returned to a country where she will be marginalized and persecuted for being a divorced woman, a single mother, or for being perceived as “rejected” by her spouse.
Domestic violence victims should not have to choose between their own and their children’s safety, or being forever separated from their children and sent back to their home countries.
Secure Communities is a significant setback that not only dis-empowers domestic violence victims, but reinforces the structures and beliefs that allow for the perpetuation of domestic violence.
Amy Woo is a staff attorney with the Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific American Legal Center. IMMIGRATION MATTERS features the views of immigration advocates and experts.