On average, about 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute in the U.S. alone. It’s a sobering statistic that translates to more than 10 million people annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. What’s more is that these numbers grossly underestimate the magnitude of the problem, as millions of intimate partner violence (IPV) cases go unreported each year. This includes cases that we traditionally label “domestic violence” but also cases of human trafficking.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) takes place across borders, nationalities, socioeconomic status, and immigration status. And now, the immigration policies of the Trump administration are making it even more difficult for victims of abuse to come forward with their stories. At the root of these concerns is an executive order signed in January by President Trump that promised to ramp up deportations of undocumented immigrants. If federal policies make it more difficult for women to come forward to report abuse, this will have devastating effects on women and communities.
Women suffering from IPV may not report it for a multitude of reasons, including shame, financial dependence upon their partners, low self-esteem, fear of reprisal from their abusers, not wanting to break up the family, and many more. Women with undocumented status can be especially vulnerable to abuse because they may be more financially dependent on their abusers. A common tactic used by abusers is to threaten victims, saying that if the police are called, the victims will be arrested or deported. If a woman has undocumented status, abusers also capitalize on their fears of being deported and losing their kids to manipulate them and keep them quiet.
Since Trump took office, activists, law enforcement, and agencies serving IPV victims have warned that such policies mean that reports of IPV will decrease and will make easier for abusers to get away with it. And, in fact, reports of IPV in Latino communities across the country have decreased in 2017, not because there are fewer instances of violence; but because many undocumented Latinos fear deportation if they contact law enforcement. Agencies serving women suffering from IPV have reported dramatic drops in the clients seeking help this year. Calls to IPV hotlines are also down.
In Los Angeles, Latinos reported 3.5 percent 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. That pattern extends beyond Los Angeles to cities such as San Francisco and San Diego, which recorded even steeper declines of 18 percent and 13 percent, respectively. In April, in Houston, the number of Latinos reporting sexual assault was down 42.8 percent and reports of other violent crimes decreased 13 percent in the first few months of 2017 compared to last year. The Los Angeles police department said in a statement: “While there is no direct evidence that the decline is related to concerns within the Hispanic community regarding immigration, the department believes deportation fears may be preventing Hispanic members of the community from reporting when they are victimized.”
Since 1994 with the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), undocumented women who are victims of violent crimes and who are willing to collaborate with the state to convict their abusers have been granted protected immigration status. However, despite the widespread bi-partisan support that the VAWA has had for more than 20 years, Trump’s policies aim to reverse this. The VAWA prohibits from using information from an undocumented immigrants’ abusers to arrest or deport the victim unless the victim has been convicted of serious crimes. However, a Homeland Security memos state that “the Department no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement”, which may mean that in the near future women who have agreed to cooperate with authorities to prosecute criminals may not be protected from deportation if they are undocumented.
In addition, the names of victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants now appear on a public national database newly created by Trump through the Department of Homeland Security's Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) program. Making such information public further undermines women’s safety and makes it easier for them to be identified for immigration sweeps. This essentially punishes those who come forward to report abuse.
Abusers rarely face prosecution if victims don’t cooperate with authorities. In this current climate of fear and retribution, women whose partners have been arrested for IPV will refuse to testify against their abusers because they fear they too will be arrested by law enforcement when they go to court. And such fears are not unfounded. In fact, one recent case received international attention when immigration officials arrested an undocumented woman at a courthouse in Texas immediately after she sought an order of protection against an abusive ex-partner. People who work with victims have an increasingly difficult task of convincing them that the police can help protect them and that their abusers will face legal consequences.
Advocates now think twice about making promises that women who report abuse being protected if they cooperate with the law. Although the Violence Against Women Act can still protect immigrant survivors, the fear of deportation is still rampant. Such cases make headlines and are widely disseminated within Latino communities, further creating a climate of suspicion and vulnerability. Furthermore, U.S. citizens or legal residents may also hesitate to call the police for IPV if other family members, friends, or neighbors lack secure immigration status.
Advocates for domestic violence survivors say that it’s vital to create a safe and supportive environment for a person looking to escape an abusive situation. Our current immigration policies do not create such an environment. It can be very difficult to reassure women that disclosing abuse is the right thing to do under normal circumstances. Now, it is an even bigger challenge.
Reporting violence and abuse shouldn’t be dangerous for the victim. But women with undocumented status may jeopardize everything if they report it to law enforcement. If federal policies discourage women to report abuse, this will have devastating effects on women and will help to perpetuate violence because fewer prosecutions of abusers will occur. Not only is this a further revictimization of women seeking to escape abusive situations, but a risk to public safety. In order to encourage more victims to come forward, the Trump administration needs to clearly communicate those who do report intimate partner violence can trust that law enforcement will protect them, regardless of their immigration status.
Mellissa Withers is an assistant professor of global health at the University of Southern California.