DACA and Domestic Violence: Safeguarding Survivors from Deportation

Dovie Yoana King is a public interest attorney with two decades of experience assisting low-income immigrants, women and children. She currently works at Harvard Law School. Dovie is also the Founder and Director of SOAR for Justice (www.soarforjustice.org), an organization helping survivors of abuse. 

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allows eligible undocumented immigrants brought into the United States as children, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation as well as work authorization. As of 2017, approximately 800,000 individuals have enrolled in DACA, conferring certain benefits, such as access to driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, bank accounts, stable housing, college financial aid and jobs. For survivors of domestic violence, DACA has also provided a sense of safety and security by eliminating the threat of deportation when coming forward to report abuse to authorities, testify in court and work towards achieving economic independence through legal employment. Thus, DACA has played an important role in bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and charting a path for women to escape abusive relationships.

However, in a cruel twist of fate, the Trump administration has recently announced that it will end DACA, giving Congress a deadline of 6 months to find a legislative solution before rescinding the program. Sadly, the announcement comes on the eve of the 30th anniversary of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month this October. The timing of this news could not be more devastating for immigrants and domestic violence advocates who fear the rollback will endanger survivors and make them increasingly susceptible to immigration abuse.

Immigration Abuse

Immigrants in the United States have the right to live free from domestic violence. This includes freedom from verbal, physical, financial, psychological, sexual, emotional, spiritual and cultural abuse. Nevertheless, in reality, domestic violence has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, impacting young people between the ages of 18 and 24 more than any other age group, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. Because DACA encapsulates youth and young adults, this population is vulnerable to domestic violence given its age demographics.

Immigration abuse is particularly destructive for undocumented women. Abusers exert power and control against immigrant victims in the following ways:

IsolationPreventing the victim from communicating with friends and family in the home country to isolate the victim from her support base;

 Threats, Manipulation & IntimidationThreatening deportation and/or withdrawal of immigration petitions for legal status if the victim ends the relationship, seeks a restraining order or reports the abuse to authorities;

 Language Abuse: Preventing the victim from learning English and/or taking advantage of the victim’s inability to communicate in English by smearing and discrediting her to law enforcement;

 Document AbuseHiding or destroying important legal documents, such as passports, birth certificates, resident cards, health insurance, tax returns or driver’s licenses to prevent the victim from leaving the abuser;

Workplace AbusePreventing the victim from working outside of the home to increase financial dependence on the abuser, or getting the victim fired from a job by tipping off immigration authorities and/or the employer that the victim is undocumented;

Child Abuse: Threatening to hurt the children, take custody of the children away from the victim and/or abduct the children across international borders if the victim ends the relationship, seeks a restraining order or reports the abuse to authorities; and

Legal Abuse: Making false claims against the victim in court to intimidate her and dragging out the legal process in order to emotionally wear down the victim and get her to drop criminal charges against the abuser and/or forfeit important legal rights.

Immigration abuse is made worse when abusers work in collusion with immigration authorities to exert dominance and control of the victim. This is best illustrated by the case of an undocumented woman who was apprehended earlier this year by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents at a Texas courthouse where she sought a domestic violence restraining order against her abuser. ICE agents, who were tipped off by the abuser, arrested the victim moments after a judge granted her request for a restraining order. This alarming incident was widely reported by Spanish-language media outlets, sending a chilling message to Latinos and immigrants everywhere that standing up for justice may pose a serious risk of deportation. Indeed, a month after the Texas incident, The Los Angeles Times noted a sharp decline in the number of reports of sexual assault and domestic violence made by Latinos amid heightened concerns of anti-immigrant backlash. Unfortunately, this worry is real and not imagined, given that there is a 38 percent increase in immigration arrests and more than half a million people in detention centers awaiting immigration hearings in the Trump-era.

Survivor Stories

As a domestic violence pro bono attorney, I am fortunate to assist undocumented immigrants at a restraining order legal clinic located in San Diego County near the U.S.-Mexico border. Thus, I have first-hand experience working with individuals facing various forms of immigration abuse. Their stories of survival are harrowing and heartbreaking. In one case, a woman described attempting to end her abusive relationship after enduring multiple episodes of emotional, verbal and physical abuse. She hoped to cross the border back to Tijuana to seek safety and support from close friends and family, but her abuser confiscated the car keys and “SENTRI” (i.e. border vehicle crossing pass) to prevent her from leaving. Without family in the United States, money or an alternate mode of transportation, her efforts to escape were thwarted. In another case, a young woman recounted surviving a strangulation attempt by her boyfriend, which happened in view of their child. When she tried to leave with the child, however, the abuser confiscated her purse, wallet and important documents, such as the child’s Social Security card, birth certificate and immunization records to deter her from leaving. He also threatened to abduct the child to a remote area in Mexico unfamiliar to the victim to scare her into submission. Finally, a monolingual Spanish-speaking woman expressed a desire to report the domestic violence to police, but she felt intimidated by the abuser because he is fluent in English and made repeated threats to distort the facts and blame the victim of being the abuser if she contacted the authorities. Fearful that she might be wrongly arrested for domestic violence, the victim declined ever calling 9-1-1. These examples of immigration abuse exemplify some of the dire circumstances facing undocumented women and their children, which will likely get worse with the demise of DACA.

Safeguarding Survivors from Deportation

Because DACA affords undocumented immigrants a reprieve from the threat of deportation and the possibility of obtaining work authorization, it is a critical component in safeguarding survivors of domestic violence from further harm and exploitation. DACA must therefore be preserved. In addition, legislative steps should be taken to enact the federal DREAM Act and/or comprehensive immigration reform so survivors achieve greater peace of mind while decreasing the ability of abusers to control, manipulate and intimidate and them. Relatedly, it is vital that we continue to expand funding to support domestic violence programs so help is available to those that seek it.

As attorneys, we can also play an important role in addressing the legal needs of undocumented women and children by volunteering at local domestic violence shelters, restraining order clinics and immigrants’ rights organizations. To exemplify this point, each of the women described in “Survivor Stories” above were able to successfully obtain domestic violence restraining orders against their abusers by reaching out for help at the free legal clinic.

On a final note, if you or someone you know needs help, free and confidential help is available 24-hours a day at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

Dovie is a survivor, mother and award-winning pro bono attorney. She is a member of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Women’s Bar Association of Boston, San Diego Domestic Violence Council and Lawyer’s Club of San Diego. Read other writing by Dovie at Law@theMargins here and here

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