Undocumented Women Are Victims Twice Over

Afraid of deportations, many victims fail to file complaints. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario)

Whether or not to report the father of her three children for domestic abuse is a dilemma Nora does not know how to tackle. The Guatemalan immigrant living in Hempstead, Long Island, yearns to end years of violence but believes that alerting the police would mean putting her partner on the radar of immigration authorities.

Nora does not want her 16-year partner to be accused of a felony and be deported as a result. The salary she earns working as a housekeeper barely covers her expenses and those of her children, aged 8, 10 and 13. Although she has not lived with him for the last two years, he visits the children frequently and pays her rent, among other bills.

The 42-year-old mother said that separating from her husband was not enough to end the abuse.

“He helps me with money. He thinks that that gives him the right to continue mistreating me. He has forbidden me from starting a new life with another man. He threatens me, and says that he will stop helping me with the children if he finds out that I am seeing someone else,” said Nora, who has sought legal help at different Long Island organizations.

“I do not earn enough to support my children alone. It is a very difficult situation. I can barely pay for groceries and the monthly bills. If I report him, I am sure that he will end up in jail. I feel bad for my children because he is their dad, and they would never forgive me if he was deported because of me,” she said.

Nora’s is not an isolated case, according to activists and lawyers. Martha Maffei, executive director of the Long Island organization Services for the Advancement of Women (SEPA Mujer), said that, despite local police efforts to reach out to immigrant communities and victims of domestic violence, some women do not report for fear of causing their abuser’s deportation.

“Many of these women depend financially on their abusive partners. They fear losing the income if the husband is deported. It would be a difficult situation for them and their children to deal with,” said Maffei.

It is worse with Trump

Cristina Cerón, an attorney with SEPA Mujer, commented that many victims of abuse refuse to request restraining orders because they do not want to put their partners in the sights of the authorities.

“They are afraid to ask for help and to report [their partner],” said Cerón. “Being convicted of a felony is one of ICE’s [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] priorities for deportation. We have seen great fear in the last few months due to President Donald Trump’s policies. (…) Of every 10 clients seeking counseling, nine of them ask how filing a complaint and going through a legal process with the authorities would affect them and their partners.”

The organization is worried about the drastic decrease in the number of women who attend their monthly orientation sessions about defending their rights.

Maffei pointed out that between 10 and 15 women usually attend the meetings – held on the first Thursday of every month – but that only three people have come to the sessions since January.

“We think that the reduction in attendance may be associated with the fear that Trump’s immigration policies and the recent ICE operations in New York have generated. We are really concerned that people are not turning up to learn about their rights and how to defend themselves. It is a situation that we had not observed before,” said Maffei.

The attorney also said that while there was a record number of deportations under the administration of President Barack Obama, the fear is greater under Trump because of the level of uncertainty.

“During President Obama’s administration, we had a clear idea of what ICE’s priorities for deportation were, but Trump’s policies are not very clear and they vary constantly,” explained Cerón. “Under those circumstances, it is difficult to act.”

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The police do not collaborate with ICE

SEPA Mujer belongs to the coalition of organizations that pushed for reform at the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) in 2013 after the recommendations made by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in light of the murder of Ecuadorean-born Marcelo Lucero in 2009. At that time, the federal agency found that the police had systematically been ignoring reports of hate crimes against Latinos.

At the moment, the SCPD is reaching out to immigrant communities to encourage reporting and collaboration in crime investigations. Maffei said that Commissioner Timothy Sini “has shown sensibility toward the fear and vulnerability felt by the victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes.”

On March 10, Sini met with immigrant advocates to discuss the current immigration policies and how they are being enacted locally. The commissioner said that the SCPD does not ask victims or witnesses of crimes about their immigration status.

He also made clear that no officer would sign 287(g) agreements enforcing federal immigration law at the local level.

“We believe that even though we want to collaborate with our federal law enforcement officials (…), we do not want to be deportation officers, and that is why we do not wish to collaborate with the 287(g) agreements,” he said during the meeting.

The 287(g) program establishes agreements between local law enforcement agencies and ICE, giving local police the authority to enforce federal immigration law.

Pro-immigrant advocates say that the program allows the authorities to deport people for misdemeanors, in addition to causing victims and witnesses of crimes to refuse to collaborate with local authorities for fear of detention by ICE.

“We celebrate the fact that the SCPD is not collaborating with immigration authorities. It is a crucial step in the defense and protection of our communities,” said Maffei.

SEPA Mujer will strengthen its orientation programs focused on women who are victims of abuse. The organization provides services to approximately 1,500 people per year.

“We take the cases of 50 people with domestic violence and immigration problems every year. It is a high number; ideally, we would take around 30. There is great demand for services, particularly in the last few months,” said Cerón.

To find help:

SEPA Mujer asked victims of domestic abuse to call their help line in Spanish at (631) 980-2555. They may also visit the organization’s main office at 185 Oval Dr., Islandia, NY, 11749.

On Sunday, March 26, at 2:30 p.m., SEPA Mujer and other Long Island organizations will hold a community support and free services meeting at 2038 Old Country Rd., Riverhead, NY, 11946.

To reserve a space, call (631) 413-3179.

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