After nearly ten years of marriage, Marlena’s husband left her. This would not be the first time he had left her and their two young children — many times he had disappeared for days with no explanation. He was always in and out of jail. But this time, it would be the last time he left.
“Marlena,” 31, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had had enough of the constant physical and emotional abuse, the death threats and the stalking, from her husband over all those years.
For years she had thought it was best to stay with him for the sake of the kids, enduring the abuse so the children could still have their father. There was also another powerful element to her feeling like she couldn’t leave — brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a baby, Marlena was undocumented.
“He was always threatening me with that,” she said from her home in Hopkins County, northeast of Dallas. “That was his way of getting at me: that he would call immigration, take the kids away from me, that I had no right to be here. So it was very hard.”
Marlena’s story highlights a problem that is believed to be common, but impossible to quantify. In the often silent world of undocumented immigrants in the United States, fear of deportation discourages people from seeking help from the police, even in the worst circumstances. In rural areas, immigrants may also be isolated by geography, making their ability to seek help even more fraught.
“Abused immigrant spouses are uniquely dependent on their family members who do have immigration status or U.S. citizenship here,” said Glenaan O’Neill, Regional Director of Immigrant Victims Services for the Texas Civil Rights Project. TCRP’s Immigrant Victims Services Program is designed to advocate for and provide immigration and legal services to immigrants in underserved areas in Texas. "That dependence is financial, but it’s also cultural awareness."
Immigration status is legally irrelevant to obtaining emergency medical assistance, emergency shelter, to getting a protective order or custody or a divorce. “And it is not relevant to whether or not someone can call the police," O’Neil said. "This keeps a lot of victims of domestic violence completely silent and feeling like they need to stay in the relationship because they don't know that they can call the police, that the police do protect victims in any situation.”
This distrust is not unfounded. In the mid-'90s, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) implemented training for state and local police to help enforce immigration law. The program was a result of section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act and allowed state and local law enforcement officers to identify and detain undocumented immigrants that they came across during their usual duties.
The program came under national scrutiny after the March 2010 arrest of undocumented Kennesaw State University student Jessica Colotl after she was pulled over for a traffic violation. By 2012, ICE decided to discontinue trainings with local and state law enforcement agencies under 287(g), replacing it with other programs like Secure Communities, which only seemed to fan the fire more.
In 2015, the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) replaced Secure Communities. PEP is similar to Secure Communities in that the fingerprints of every individual arrested and booked into custody are checked for their immigration status. If there’s an immigration issue, the information is forwarded to ICE who then seeks “the transfer of a removable individual when that individual has been convicted of an offense listed under the DHS civil immigration enforcement priorities, has intentionally participated in an organized criminal gang to further the illegal activity of the gang, or poses a danger to national security.”
However, victims of crime are not fingerprinted or processed like accused criminals. The perceived notion that calling the police could automatically mean deportation is the biggest barrier to seeking help for many immigrants who have risked their lives to cross the border or were fleeing what they consider to be worse situations in their home countries.
By far, the policy that has had the largest impact on immigrant victims of domestic violence is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In 2013, President Obama expanded the access to protection and resources to include domestic abuse victims without citizenship status.
Local and statewide grassroots efforts like TCRP’s Immigrant Services Program are also making strides in providing more resources for immigrant victims and bridging the gap between the undocumented community and law enforcement in Texas.
Not only does the Immigrant Victims Services Program provide legal counsel for victims, but they also spend much of their time educating law enforcement and building partnerships with local shelters in the communities they serve.
“We’re in a unique position to help build bridges between the law enforcement community and communities that otherwise may be too afraid to report crime,” said O’Neil. “To encourage them to overcome that fear. … [Law enforcement’s] expertise is in combating crime, not enforcing federal immigration or dealing with federal immigration rules. So making sure they understand that immigrants do have resources if they do come forward, I think takes that load off local law enforcement and allows them to focus on the violent crime that they're trying to deal with. The law enforcement agencies I work with really just want to put these abusers behind bars.”
One afternoon Marlena’s husband showed up in front of their house, screaming and throwing things at the windows.
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“I wasn't looking forward to getting help, I didn’t think it was going to come to an end that quick,” Marlena said. “This had been going on for years and years and years and I thought it was just another phase. But I was tired of it. [When he showed up that afternoon], I had to call the sheriff’s office and yes, I was very scared to do that. I thought that they were going to take me right then and there. They ended up taking him. He kept screaming that he couldn't believe that they weren't doing anything to me.”
Instead, the sheriff told Marlena about her options to seek help at a local domestic violence shelter. She made an appointment for the following Monday and was soon directed to Seve Kale, who provides legal assistance to clients in 23 counties across Northeast Texas for the TCRP Immigrant Services Program. In the rural counties they serve across Texas, the Immigrant Services Program serves about 1,500 clients a year, said O’Neil.
Three years later, Marlena has received her VAWA status, has a work permit and has applied for a social security number. She completed her GED and plans to attend college. She is soon starting the process of becoming a resident and one day, a full citizen.
“I'm in a better place now,” Marlena said. “I can finally go out. I can finally do whatever I want to do. I'm able to work without being afraid of him, without being afraid of my kids being taken away from me, without being afraid of deportation. There were times I didn't think it would happen, I didn't think I’d accomplish anything. But with the help of people like Seve, I've come a long way.”