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A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. (Provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Erma Alvarez says when her husband left her, he said it was to give their two children a better life.

But when he returned with another woman and began physically abusing her, she just wanted him to leave her be. But, the 47-year-old says, instead he began threatening to use her immigration status against her — an intimidation tactic that left her with overwhelming anxiety.

“They told me to go back to Mexico. They said they are going to call immigration on me and they are going to have me deported,” Alvarez, who is living in the U.S. illegally and resides in Denver, said through an interpreter. “They have me in an almost debilitating state with the shock and fear.”

Alvarez sought help from Latina Safehouse, a Denver-area nonprofit that specializes in serving domestic violence victims who are refugees or are living in the U.S. without legal immigration status. The group’s executive director, Angela Ceseña, says she has seen a sharp increase in the number of women reporting that their partners are threatening them with deportation as part of broader abuse. 

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In 2018, Latina Safehouse served 150 victims. Through May, they had seen 300 — a jump of 100%. Ceseña says that 90% to 95% of the women they help report that their partners are using their immigration status to threaten them. 

“We’ve had some of our survivors in shelters threatened by another survivor with deportation,” Ceseña said. “So the immigration piece, it’s big. People just use it as a scare tactic. For another victim of domestic violence to threaten a monolingual Spanish-speaking survivor with deportation? Before, it was unheard of.”

Domestic abusers threatening their victims with immigration consequences is nothing new — advocates say they’ve seen cases of it for years and have expressed concern that it likely prevents survivors from seeking help from law enforcement. But the spike reported by Latina Safehouse comes amid broader anxiety in the immigrant community as the Trump administration steps up its enforcement against people living in the country unlawfully. 

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. (Provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Matthew Albence, the acting director of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, downplayed the effect and cast doubt on reports that the number of abusers threatening undocumented women with deportation is increasing.

Matthew Albence, the acting director of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. (Handout)

“I don’t necessarily believe any of those statistics,” Albence told Denver television station CBS4, a Colorado Sun partner, during a trip to Denver last week. “What I can tell you is that if there is a decrease in the number of charges for domestic violence, it’s because we’re removing those offenders out of the country.”

He said ICE learns about most of the people they target for enforcement come through the criminal justice system and that their focus is on people living in the U.S. illegally who commit crimes, not their victims. 

“We don’t know about the victim. We wouldn’t go after the victim,” he said. “And even if there were problems with the victim, we have programs which allow victims to stay in the country and have a lawful benefit while they pursue their criminal cases.”

But Ceseña says she has seen a decrease in the number of victims willing to seek out that remedy, called a “U visa,” which allows victims of substantial abuse living the U.S. and willing to help law enforcement to get legal status. That’s because they’re fearful that if their application is denied they could be issued a deportation order

“If someone loses a U visa, they will get referred to immigration court,” said Hans Meyer, a Denver immigration attorney. “That’s a policy under Trump.”

Meyer said that any abusers threatening their victims with immigration consequences are making an empty threat. The idea that federal agents would pursue a tip made about someone’s legal status in the U.S. is not based in reality. 

He hasn’t seen an uptick in people seeking legal help because their abusers are using deportation as a threat. But given rising anxieties about federal immigration enforcement, such as reports of mass sweeps, he’s not surprised that others are.

“That makes the abusers’ threats more tangible,” Meyer said. “Whereas if we had more protections, the threats would more likely be exposed for what they are.”

The dome of the Colorado Capitol on July 26, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Immigration attorney Aaron Hall says he regularly sees clients worried their abusers will follow through with their immigration-related threats. In fact, on the day The Sun contacted him for this story, he said he had just finished a consultation on such a case. 

“We see it all the time,” he said. “People threatening, ‘If you don’t do X-Y-Z I am going to stop supporting your immigration case.’ I probably don’t go a few weeks without seeing this issue. I don’t doubt that other organizations or attorneys might see a spike because immigration enforcement has been in the news.”

Abigail Hansen, director of counseling and advocacy services at Safehouse Denver, which provides both residential and non-residential support to domestic violence victims, said her organization has seen the rising trend as well. 

“I would say over the past several years, anecdotally, there has been an increase in survivors who say their perpetrators use the threat of deportation as a tactic of abuse,” she said. 

Sometimes, the threat of immigration consequences can be more frightening for victims than the threat of physical violence. 

“If the perpetrators are also fearing deportation, they are likely to be staying home more with their victims,” she said. “It puts our victims at increased risk. Now there are survivors who just don’t have a break anymore.”

Read more immigration coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Erma Alvarez, who has lived in the U.S. for 17 years, says the threats against her have been ongoing, and that she’s afraid of what being removed from the country could mean for her children, who have disabilities.

“I need to be there for them,” she said. “I need to continue taking them to their therapies and I need to continue supporting them.”

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...