When one of Maureen Abell’s undocumented clients was arrested on felony hit-and-run charges in Mecklenburg County in 2017, she told him to not to post bail. Paying that fee would almost guarantee that he ended up in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s custody, she said.
“He sat in county jail for three months and then he got acquitted,” said Abell, who acts as an attorney with Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s Immigrant Justice Program in North Carolina. The program primarily serves those living in Mecklenburg County.
“They still came and got him. He still spent three months at a Georgia detention facility before we got him out, and that was with no criminal record.”
Abell said that client is one of many who have been unfairly detained by ICE since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. In the past, Abell said, a client who was applying for a green card would not need to have an active visa in order to avoid arrest and detention. Now, ICE agents are more aggressive, often waiting to pick up immigrants after they leave court, regardless of whether they were convicted of any criminal charges or not.
The fear can be especially palpable for victims of domestic violence, whose abusers might use the threat of deportation to hold sway over their victims. While fears surrounding ICE have always existed in the immigrant community, those worries have only been heightened by the policy changes enacted on the federal level and the increase in anti-immigration sentiment espoused by politicians. During his first year in office, Trump fought to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as well as rescinded the Temporary Protected Status granted to Hondurans who have lived in the country for nearly two decades. He’s recently proposed that migrant children should be held on military bases, and has declared that minors who cross the border are potentially tied to gang violence. He’s stated those children are “not innocent,” according to the Washington Post.
Abell said that in the past, about 80 percent of all of her immigrant clients were afraid that reporting their abusers would lead to deportation. Now, she estimates that number is closer to 100 percent.
The fear of deportation is stronger among those who don’t have a visa or documented status, Abell said. However, deportation can pose a threat to anyone who doesn’t have citizenship, especially if they face a criminal conviction. For example, police sometimes charge both the victim and the abuser during a domestic violence situation.
“The threat is generally that he will tell the police she attacked him,” Abell said. “He’s usually the one who speaks better English, or any English.”
If an immigrant is convicted of a domestic violence charge, that person can be deported, even if they’re a permanent resident.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years and it’s always ‘He said he’s going to call ICE, he’s saying they’re going to come get me.’ The difference is now they’re seeing it on the news, so the fear is greater. And I can’t quite say that they’re wrong,” Abell said.
Abell said she doesn’t believe there’s been a drop in the number of people requesting services from Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s immigration program, which handles the center’s domestic violence cases. The immigration program also works with clients who are seeking asylum, who have experienced housing discrimination, or who need their status adjusted in some way. Other legal groups said that they have noticed a decline in the number of immigrants reporting incidents of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Christine Poarch, the founding attorney at Poarch Law in Roanoke, Virginia, said that her firm has increased efforts to let the Spanish-speaking community know that resources are available for victims of violent crimes, including children who need asylum after suffering neglect or abuse. Poarch said she’s noticed a decline in the number of victims reporting abusers in the region. Though Poarch did not provide exact numbers, she said the law firm — which serves Southwest Virginia as well as parts of West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina — has worked with fewer minors and domestic violence victims compared to prior years.
One reason that Poarch Law has seen fewer juvenile clients in recent months is because minors can effectively no longer apply for Special Immigration Juvenile (SIJ) status in Virginia in most jurisdictions. The designation allows undocumented children to become lawful permanent residents if they’ve experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment by at least one guardian. But in 2017, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s courts cannot decide whether a juvenile’s best interest would be served by returning to their country of origin, a predicate finding for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to award SIJ status. The ruling has been interpreted by many courts to mean that they cannot enter the necessary order to grant a juvenile SIJ status, Poarch said.
“We can’t even vet them for that status because of the ruling,” Poarch said. “A lot of those cases become asylum cases because they still come from Central American countries and they’ll be subject to violence if they return.”
The White House and anti-immigration representatives have criticized the process of receiving SIJ status in the past by saying that some recipients may not have been in a dire situation, according to a 2017 Reuters article. Immigrant children can receive the designation even if only one parent or guardian is abusive or neglectful, which critics say is inappropriate given the child would hypothetically be safe once separated from that one adult. A large number of pending cases means that juveniles who apply for the status may be in for a long, arduous wait before discovering whether they will be granted the status in court. In 2017, only 11,335 people out of 20,914 applicants were approved according to data from USCIS. That same data showed there were 22,695 pending applications at the end of 2017.
ICE raids in Appalachian areas have also stoked fears among immigrants. In April, at least 15 people were arrested and charged with illegal entry in Buncombe and Henderson counties, near Asheville, North Carolina, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times. An ICE official told the paper that the majority of those detained had been convicted of a crime or were illegal re-entrants, but it’s unclear what percentage of those detained fell into those categories, or how many of those arrested had criminal convictions specifically. At least 40 people were arrested across the state. Close to 100 immigrants were arrested in Bean Station, Tennessee, after ICE raided a meat-processing plant; only 11 of those were arrested on federal or state immigration charges, according to The Washington Post.
While Roanoke has not experienced any raids, the procedural changes enacted by the new administration have led to heightened levels of concern among the immigrant community, Poarch said. In the past, she said, ICE placed undocumented immigrants into categories, and prioritized those who had committed violent crimes or were part of notable gangs, like MS-13. Now, ICE officers are expected to use their own discretion when picking up immigrants. Additionally, Poarch said agents have been ordered to focus on immigrants that have been charged — not convicted — with a criminal offense or accused of abusing public benefits.
“It used to be if they needed someone on an order for a warrant, they would go in and say, ‘Hey we need this guy,’ and they wouldn’t look for anyone else,” Poarch said. “Now, they’re going in and if there’s 10 other people, they’ll get those as well.”
The change is especially troubling in Virginia, which Poarch said has historically received a high number of immigrant children seeking asylum.
At a recent panel focused on issues facing juvenile immigrants, Poarch said one participant told a story about a child who suffered abuse from a non-family member for years because he was afraid that reporting would lead to repercussions for his family.
“There’s still concern on the part of the victim on how their abuser is going to report their status,” Poarch said. “(Attendees at the panel) were very clear that they had experienced a high degree of fear from their constituency because they were fearful that reporting was going to put the immigrant juvenile or their family at jeopardy.”
Immigrants who suffer domestic violence also risk running into hostile judges when their cases are heard, Abell said. While she has not experienced that with her clients in Mecklenburg County, she said that some judges are more willing to entertain the notion that a victim is claiming abuse to gain a visa. It’s common, she said, for an abuser’s attorney to argue that the victim’s case is a scam to gain permanent residence.
“I usually just say, ‘Your honor, this is way too complicated to be a scam. She has three kids with this guy and there’s a 10-year waiting period to get a visa. If it was a scam she’d just accuse some random guy on the street of hurting her,” Abell said.
Poarch and Abell both said that the changes in how ICE agents choose to detain immigrants makes it harder to determine how many abuse and domestic violence victims are being deported alongside those with criminal convictions. The changes have made giving legal advice more difficult, as it’s harder to predict the outcome of reporting abuse or going to court.
“I used to be able to say ‘I’ve never heard of such a thing,’ or ‘That’s stupid,’” Abell said. “Now I can only say ‘I haven’t heard of that happening here, but do you have an arrest record, or are they looking for you for some reason?’”
Tiffany Stevens (@tiffanymstevens) is a print journalist living in Southwest Virginia. Their newsletter, “Happening at Home,” rounds up great reporting from two different cities each issue.