October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It’s always an opportunity for me to reflect on my work over fifteen years ago, as a young lawyer in New York in the aftermath of 9–11. I represented immigrant survivors of domestic violence in family court. I saw them grapple with the trauma of their experiences, not knowing who to trust, arranging child care, taking time off work at their often low-wage jobs to attend long and frequent court appearances, and facing overwhelming fears of their abusive partners and the possibility of deportation.
One day as I walked up the steps of the courthouse, I met a woman who was curious about the process for getting an order of protection but not yet ready to come inside. While she was afraid to go home, she didn’t believe that the police would help her as a Muslim in New York a year after the terror attack. All these years later, these fears are still real as people of color continue being profiled and rounded up for the deportation pipeline — now even as they try to enter courthouses, and there are few safe places for them to turn even when they are in danger.
Accessing safety for immigrant survivors of domestic violence presents its own unique set of challenges. Since he has taken office, President Trump has effectuated sweeping changes to immigration policy that have left immigrant women increasingly vulnerable to domestic violence and without the resources to protect themselves and their families.
Among these are President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ crusade to increase police involvement in immigration enforcement which has further bred feelings of distrust, prevalent in many communities of color, exacerbating an unwillingness to engage at all with law enforcement. Despite the success of sanctuary jurisdictions, and the more than 60 police chiefs and sheriffs who support these policies to improve trust with the community members they are tasked with protecting, the administration continues to fight the right of localities to enact them. Public records requests show that the reporting of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault by Latinas has dropped precipitously since Trump took office.
Additionally, the Trump administration is attacking the immigration programs domestic violence survivors turn to for relief, including rewriting long-standing asylum law to exclude those seeking safety from domestic violence. And Congress has yet to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which was set to expire on September 30th but was extended through December 7th using a stopgap spending bill. Despite this onslaught, the voices, stories and brave leadership of survivors of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women have led to changes in local government policies, law enforcement practices, and federal immigration policy. The fight against local police acting as immigration agents has been an important opportunity for the immigrant rights movement to be led by the stories of women and the movement for survivors to be led by the stories of women of color. It has been an opportunity for both movements to stand with those seeking criminal justice reforms using a racial justice framework.
Despite our best efforts, the climate of fear and the destabilizing nature of deportations stand in the way of progress when it comes to making our cities and neighborhoods welcoming and promoting healthier relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it’s important to think about how we push for structural changes toward ending violence against women to ensure all survivors have choices to help them access safety and justice. We must acknowledge that calling the police, going to courts and asking government systems for help do not mean the same thing for everyone.