The Trump administration is again, putting families—especially women and children—in harm’s way as he continues his unrelenting assault on immigrant families.
We all saw the photos and heard the cries of children in cages at the border. But you probably haven’t heard about how the administration is making victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes even more vulnerable. Due to a new Trump administration policy, many more abused immigrants will likely face deportation and thousands more will be encouraged to stay in the shadows and remain with their abusers.
President Trump is turning an agency tasked with granting visas, work authorization, and other permits to immigrants into another cog in the deportation machine. On July 5th, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo that dramatically broadens when the agency may issue a Notice To Appear (NTA), the document that begins an immigrant’s journey towards deportation. In the past, USCIS could issue NTAs but it typically did so only in limited cases. The new agency guidance dramatically expands USCIS’s immigration enforcement function and allows USCIS to issue NTAs for any case it denies when the applicant is found to be unlawfully present.
For our country’s most vulnerable immigrants, the impact of this memo is dramatic. Currently, a capped number of immigrants may apply for visas as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other serious crimes. Congress created these visas to help law enforcement identify and prosecute perpetrators of abuse. To access these limited visas, immigrant victims must help law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activities. Victims’ engagement with law enforcement makes it more likely that police and prosecutors can bring successful cases against offenders, enabling them to reduce crime in our communities. For domestic violence victims, these visas serve an additional purpose. If you are undocumented and your abusive spouse has legal status, your dependency and vulnerability is compounded. Giving the abused spouse legal status is critical to help break down a power imbalance in these relationships.
The July 5th guidance threatens victims’ ability to safely apply for immigration relief. When immigrant victims consider seeking legal immigration status, they will question: is it worth possibly being deported? In some cities, already we know that fewer immigrants are reporting their experiences of domestic violence because of fear of deportation. Here in the DC metro area and across the nation, we will likely to see a drop in the number of abused immigrants seeking legal status.
At Ayuda, we are on the frontlines of serving some of the most vulnerable immigrants living in our community. Our organization provides immigration and family law representation, social services, and language access support for low-income immigrants who choose to make the Washington area home. Take for example Maria*, a typical Ayuda client whose strength and resilience are anything but typical. Maria was living with the father of her two children in the United States. He drank heavily and was emotionally and physically abusive towards her. He would regularly force her to have sex with him and beat her when she would not comply. He punched her, pushed her to the ground and pulled her hair. He would even beat and berate her when the children were present. Maria finally decided that she could not raise her children witnessing constant abuse by their father and she fled to a friend’s home who brought her to Ayuda. Ayuda attorneys and social services staff were there to support Maria and help make plans to ensure her safety, show her a pathway to achieving her independence from her abuser through filing a U visa (for victims of crimes) and help her start a new road on her way to a new American dream.
Now, immigrants like Maria will face even more impossible choices. If they want to help police and seek legal status, they will put themselves in the crosshairs of the deportation apparatus.
Even in this divided, hyper-partisan era, bipartisan public outcry resulted in a reversal of the inhumane family separation policy at the border. Prominent leaders in both parties who spoke out for families at the border must now raise their voices once again for vulnerable immigrant victims living here in our communities.
*Name changed to protect client identity