Too scared to reach for help
Abuse victims stay silent over fears of deportation, fuelled by misinformation and despair.
THE woman on the other end of the line said her husband had been beating her for years, even while she was pregnant.
She was in danger and wanted help, but was in the country illegally and was convinced she would be deported if she called authorities. Fearful her husband would gain custody of her children, she wanted nothing to do with the legal system.
It is a story that Jocelyn Maya, programme supervisor at the domestic violence shelter Su Casa in Long Beach, United States, has heard often this year.
In the first six months of 2017, reports of domestic violence declined among Latino residents in some of California’s largest cities, a retreat that crisis professionals say is driven by a fear that interacting with police or entering a courthouse could make immigrants easy targets for deportation.
President Donald Trump’s aggressive stance on illegal immigration, executive orders greatly expanding the number of people who can be targeted for deportation and news reports of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents making arrests at courthouses have contributed to the downturn, according to civil liberties and immigrant rights advocates.
In Los Angeles, Latinos reported 3.5% fewer instances of spousal abuse in the first six months of the year compared with 2016, while reporting among non-Latino victims was virtually unchanged, records show. That pattern extends beyond Los Angeles to cities such as San Francisco and San Diego, which recorded even steeper declines of 18% and 13%, respectively. Domestic violence is traditionally an under-reported crime. Some police officials and advocates now say immigrants without legal status also may become targets for other crimes because of their reluctance to contact law enforcement.
The Long Beach abuse victim, fearing she had no other recourse, sent her oldest children back to Mexico to live with relatives.
“We’re supposed to be that assurance that they don’t have. That safety net,” Maya said. “But it’s getting harder for us to have a positive word for them and say: ‘It’s going to be OK. You can go into a courtroom. You can call the police.’”
LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Marino Gonzalez said he addresses such apprehension frequently in East LA, even though his department doesn’t question people about their immigration status.
“They’re afraid of us. And the reason they’re afraid of us is because they think we’re going to deport them. They don’t know that we don’t deport them; we don’t ask for their immigration status,” he said. “They just gotta go based on what they see on social media and what they hear from other people.”
On a warm afternoon, Gonzalez pulled his cruiser to a stop near a row of apartments in Cudahy, ahead of a community meeting in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood.
The mood in the city was tense. The night before, a pro-Trump demonstrator protesting the city’s “sanctuary” status had been arrested on suspicion of brandishing a gun. Gonzalez and city officials went door-to-door, flashing smiles and speaking Spanish to residents, urging them to attend the meeting.
Gonzalez spoke calmly to the assembly of several dozen people sipping from Styrofoam cups.
“We’re not here to ask you where you’re from,” he said in Spanish, drawing thankful nods.
Gonzalez, who came to the US from Mexico as a child, said he knows why people are scared, but hopes face-to-face conversations will persuade more victims to come forward.
“The community here, they don’t know, and they won’t know, unless we reach out,” he said.
ICE officials also said they do not target crime victims for deportation and, in fact, often extend visas to those who report violent crime and sexual abuse.
Officials in the agency’s Los Angeles office declined to be interviewed. ICE issued a statement dismissing links between immigration enforcement and a decline in crime reporting among immigrants as “speculative and irresponsible”.
The drop in reporting could result from an overall decrease in domestic violence crimes, the agency said. But police statistics reviewed by the Los Angeles Times suggest that statement is inaccurate. The decline in domestic violence reports among Latinos in several cities is far steeper than overall declines in reporting of those crimes.
In Los Angeles and San Diego, reporting of domestic violence crimes remained unchanged among non-Latinos. The decline among Latinos in San Diego was more than double the overall citywide decrease, records show. In San Francisco, the reporting decline among Latinos was nearly triple the citywide decrease. The pattern extends outside California.
In April, Houston police Chief Art Acevedo said the number of Latino victims reporting sexual assault had dropped 42% in his city. In Denver, at least nine women abandoned pursuit of restraining orders against their abusers after immigration enforcement agents were filmed making an arrest in a city courthouse this year, City Attorney Kristi Bronson said.
Claude Arnold, who oversaw ICE operations in Southern California from 2010 to 2015, said misconceptions about the agency may be driving the downswing. Crime victims are far more likely to receive a visa application than a removal order by reporting an attack, he said.
“ICE still has a policy that we don’t pursue removal proceedings against victims or witnesses of crime, and I haven’t seen any documented instances where that actually happened,” he said. “To a great degree, we facilitate those people having legal status in the U.S.”
Nationwide, the number of arrests made by ICE agents for violations of immigration law surged by 37% in the first half of 2017. In Southern California, those arrests increased by 4.5%.
Arnold said some immigrants’ rights activists have helped facilitate a climate of fear by spreading inaccurate information about ICE sweeps that either didn’t happen, or were in line with the Obama administration’s policies.
But professionals who deal with domestic violence victims say the perception of hardcore enforcement tactics under Trump has led to widespread panic.
Adam Dodge, legal director at the Orange County domestic violence shelter Laura’s House, said that before February, nearly half the centre’s client base were immigrants in the country illegally. That month, ICE agents in Texas entered a courthouse to arrest a woman without legal status who was seeking a restraining order against an abuser.
“We went from half our clients being undocumented, to zero undocumented clients,” he said.
A video recording this year of a father being arrested by ICE agents after dropping his daughter off at a Lincoln Heights school had a similar effect on abuse victims in neighboring Boyle Heights, said Rebeca Melendez, director of wellness programmes for the East L.A. Women’s Center.
“They instilled the ultimate fear into our community,” she said. “They know they can trust us, but they are not trusting very many people past us.”
Even when victims come forward, defense attorneys sometimes use the spectre of ICE as a weapon against them, to the frustration of prosecutors.
In the Bay Area, a Daly City man was facing battery charges this year after flashing a knife and striking the mother of his girlfriend, according to court records. The man’s defense attorney raised the fact that the victim was in the country illegally during pretrial hearings, although a judge eventually ruled that evidence was irrelevant and inadmissible at trial, records show.
The case ended in a hung jury. When prosecutors sought a retrial, the victim said she would not cooperate, in part, because her immigration status was raised during the trial, said Max Szabo, a spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said the case was one of several where his prosecutors felt defense attorneys sought to leverage heightened fears of deportation against victims. He believes that tactic, combined with ICE’s expanded priorities and presence
in courthouses, is driving down domestic violence reporting among immigrants in the city’s sprawling Latino and Asian communities.
Gascon described the situation as a “replay” of the fear he saw in the immigrant community while he was the police chief in Mesa, Arizona, during Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s crusade against people without legal status, which led to accusations of racial profiling.
Stephanie Penrod, managing attorney for the Family Violence Law Center in Oakland, also said the number of immigrants without legal status willing to seek aid from law enforcement has dwindled.
Abusers frequently will threaten to call immigration enforcement agents on their victims, a threat Penrod believes has more teeth now given ICE’s increased presence in courthouses.
“The biggest difference for us now is those threats are legitimate,” she said. “Previously we used to advise them we couldn’t prevent an abuser from calling ICE, but that it was unlikely ICE would do anything.”
If the problem persists, Gascon fears the consequences could be deadly.
“The level of violence increases,” he said. “It could, in some cases, lead to severe injury or homicide.”
Sheriff’s deputy Marino Gonzalez (centre), talks with community members during a block meeting to assure them they can come forward to lodge reports of abuse without being questioned about their immigration status.