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Opinion: For domestic violence victims, the price of immigration-related fears may be nothing short of death

Requests for domestic violence services are up at Latina Safehouse in Denver, as reported recently by The Colorado Sun.

Victims who are undocumented say their abusers have threatened to report them to the government. But, acting director of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Matthew Albence, said he doesn’t necessarily believe that’s true. Instead, he said any decreases in prosecutions would be due to the deportation of offenders. 

Anne DePrince

What should you believe? Are abusers stoking deportation fears in their victims? Or is the country winning a war on domestic violence through ICE roundups and deportations? 

We have insight into these questions based on years of working together to better meet the needs of crime victims — including domestic violence victims. Our work highlights several things you need to know about domestic violence dynamics and crime victims’ immigration-related fears. 

Emily Tofte Nestaval

In domestic violence, abusers play on victims’ fears. Abusers alienate victims from friends, family, and help — such as the police. For example, abusers commonly tell victims that the police won’t believe them or will take their children away. 

U.S. immigration policies have stoked fears across immigrant communities with threats of roundups and deportations. These government actions give abusers ammunition to use against victims who are undocumented or who fear they will get swept up in ICE raids despite their legal status. 

Naomi Wright

Given domestic violence dynamics, we find it hard to imagine that abusers would not play on victims’ immigration-related fears. Evidence locally points to increases in immigration-related fears among crime victims.

Several years ago, we identified more than 50 barriers that crime victims face when trying to get their legal needs met. Since 2016, we have surveyed victim service providers monthly to evaluate whether 26 of those barriers have continued to be problems for their clients trying to get legal services. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

One of the barriers that we have tracked is victims’ fears that seeking legal services might result in deportation or changes in legal status for themselves or their loved ones. 

This gives us an interesting perspective on immigration-related fears before and after U.S. immigration policy changes with the 2017 presidential inauguration.  

Prior to 2017, victim service providers rated their clients’ fears about deportation or legal status as a medium-to-big problem (on average) for getting legal services.

Since 2017, providers have rated victims’ fears about deportation or legal status as a big-to-very-big problem. Since that time, fears about deportation and legal status have remained stubbornly high, often in the top five of the barriers that victim service providers report on each month. 

To understand how victims’ fears relate to prosecution and victim safety, it is important to know that reporting is the gateway to prosecution: Unreported crimes cannot be prosecuted.

Further, many protections for victims require them to go to courthouses. For example, victims may have to physically appear in court to testify during prosecution or to seek civil protection orders

News in 2017 and 2018 that ICE was showing up at courthouses may have confirmed for many victims the immigration-related threats made by their abusers. 

Immigration-related fears are more likely to affect prosecution rates by chilling immigrant victim’s willingness to use the courts and report to law enforcement than deportation of abusers — particularly given that abusers may be U.S. citizens.

Assuming that abusers and victims are both non-citizens propagates myths about immigrant communities and crime — as well as myths that abuse occurs within cultural groups. Such assumptions have created enormous blind spots in our policies and courts. For example, Native American women victimized by non-Native U.S. citizens struggle to this day to get access to justice

Lower rates of reporting and prosecution ultimately leave more abusers in our communities who are not held accountable for their actions and can continue offending. Our communities pay this price — and so do victims. 

For domestic violence victims, the price of immigration-related fears may be nothing short of death. Consider that one woman is shot and killed by a current or former partner every 16 hours.

This number is sure to increase among immigrant women if fears about deportation and legal status cause them to second-guess calling the police in life-threatening situations.

The aftermath of the recent El Paso mass shooting highlighted the very real risk that immigration-related fears can prevent people from accessing needed emergency services.

Instead of doubting what domestic violence victims say about the threats abusers make, we must address their fears. We applaud the public statements made by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and leaders nationally that police in their communities will not cooperate with federal immigration raids.

We urge them to keep repeating these messages to ensure that domestic violence victims can safely call the police and use the courts if they choose to. Victims’ lives depend on it. 

Anne P. DePrince is a professor at the University of Denver’s department of psychology. Her research focuses on the consequences of trauma against women and children. Emily Tofte Nestaval is the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center. Naomi Wright is a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Denver.


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