Immigration orders undermine Violence Against Women Act protections
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On Feb. 9, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained Irvin González, an undocumented transgender woman, inside a courthouse in El Paso, Texas, where she had just obtained a protection order against her abusive former partner. She had already filed three previous reports of domestic violence with police.

ICE agents may have been tipped off to her whereabouts by her alleged abuser, who was in police custody the same day that law enforcement claimed they received the information.

Seeking protection from law enforcement can be the difference between life and death for some victims of domestic violence. For immigrant women in the U.S., President Trump's heightened threat of deportation under his new executive orders on immigration will make it feel dangerous to seek protection — and that could cost victims their lives.

Advocates working with immigrant women have long raised concerns that women without authorization to live and work in the U.S. are hesitant to report domestic violence for fear that their immigration status would be discovered. Transgender immigrant women, in particular, face high levels of violence and discrimination in the U.S. In immigration detention, many have been subjected to degrading and abusive treatment, including physical and sexual assault.

But for over 20 years, the federal Violence Against Women Act has helped more than 100,000 immigrant survivors of crimes and their families report these crimes and to get a special visa to stay in the country.


The U visa provides a pathway to permanent residency for immigrants who are victims of a serious crime if they assist authorities in investigating and prosecuting the crime. Domestic violence has been the basis for almost 50 percent of U visas granted, according to one survey. Survivors whose abusers are citizens or lawful permanent residents can file petitions for residency themselves without the knowledge of the abuser.


This law limits abusers with lawful status from using their status to control undocumented partners — threatening to turn them in to the police — or using the prospect of residency sponsorship to coerce their victims into silence. The 2013 reauthorization of the law addressed questions of inclusiveness and increased protections for immigrants and other marginalized groups.

But Trump's new orders giving immigration agents carte blanche to deport people in the U.S. unlawfully could seriously undermine the protections in the Violence Against Women Act.

The situation in El Paso has made immigrant women across the country aware that their fears aren't just hypothetical. As El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal underscored on a call with reporters, "None of us can recall an incident where immigration authorities made their presence known inside a courtroom in this courthouse, and especially not in a courtroom that is reserved for victims of domestic violence."

That's because the Violence Against Women Act designates courthouses where domestic violence survivors can obtain a protective order as prohibited locations for immigration enforcement, as such activity would deter immigrants from seeking legal protection from abuse. ICE is also not supposed to act solely on information provided by an abuser, as it violates the law's confidentiality provisions for immigrant victims of crime.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP set to release controversial Biden report Trump's policies on refugees are as simple as ABCs Ocasio-Cortez, Velázquez call for convention to decide Puerto Rico status MORE voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. He sidestepped a question by Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyBattle over timing complicates Democratic shutdown strategy Hillicon Valley: Russia 'amplifying' concerns around mail-in voting to undermine election | Facebook and Twitter take steps to limit Trump remarks on voting | Facebook to block political ads ahead of election Top Democrats press Trump to sanction Russian individuals over 2020 election interference efforts MORE (D-Vt.) during his confirmation hearings on whether he would defend the law in court as attorney general, stating only, "I would defend the statute if it's reasonably defensible."

Equally troubling are reports that the administration is building its federal budget around a "blueprint" written by the conservative Heritage Foundation that calls for eliminating Violence Against Women Act grants, a nearly $500 million cut in funding.

The Violence Against Women Act is fundamental to addressing the scourge of domestic violence in the U.S. for all women, but it has been especially important for immigrant women who often have limited options for escaping an abusive relationship.

A 78-22 Senate majority and 286-138 House majority voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle should fight to ensure that President Trump's immigration orders do not undermine a law that has proven to be a lifeline for many.

Kate Segal is a senior associate in the Americas division at Human Rights Watch.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.