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This article was originally published on March 26, 2009.

Tahirih’s clients have historically been faced with threats of arrest and deportation from their abusers, but lately these women, who have a right to legal status, are becoming the unintended targets of increased activities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Recently, a study was published by the Migration Policy Institute regarding a 2003 congressional mandate that directed ICE to prioritize enforcement of violations by immigrants with criminal convictions or who were considered dangerous. However, the study found that from 2003 to 2008, nearly 75% of the 96,000 undocumented immigrants detained by ICE had no criminal convictions and were not considered dangerous. These increased enforcement activities have resulted, on occasion, in trapping some of our clients in the crossfire. Maria’s* story is just one example:

Raul* would regularly punch Maria. When he was wearing his leather boots he would throw Maria to the floor and repeatedly kick her lower back, stomach, and head. The beatings left Maria with severe pain as well as light-headedness. In a particularly violent episode, Raul threw Maria on their bed, choked her, and hit her face, head, and body. The beating lasted nearly three hours. When Raul finally left the couple’s home Maria called the police. Raul was arrested and eventually convicted, with Maria’s help, of assault and battery of a family member. Raul was sentenced to twelve months incarceration with eleven months suspended. Maria left Raul and entered a battered women’s shelter.

In retaliation for Maria’s actions, Raul filed a complaint with the police and Maria was arrested on charges of extortion. Raul stated that Maria had unlawfully withheld his passport and immigration documents. Upon Maria’s arrest, ICE imposed a detainer on her, which meant that Maria could not be released from jail. As a result, Raul was given temporary custody of the couple’s daughter. Although Maria was eventually exonerated by a jury of the extortion charges, she was not released from jail.

After nearly four months in the county jail Maria was transferred to federal custody where she was charged with Aggravated Identity Theft. Raul had provided Maria with a fake social security card and told her to apply for jobs so she could pay the bills. Maria did not realize when Raul forced her to use the social security card that it belonged to another person. Maria finally pled guilty to a reduced charge and was sentenced to time served.

However, after eight months in jail, Maria was still unable to be released because ICE had a detainer. Maria was transferred to ICE’s custody. Maria’s Tahirih attorney, Natalie Nanasi, went to the local ICE office to attempt to get Maria bond; however, she was informed that ICE had lost Maria’s file. In addition, Maria had an upcoming custody hearing for her daughter that if missed she would be guaranteed to lose custody of her daughter permanently. In a last minute action Tahirih went to immigration court and had an emergency motion for bond granted. Maria was released from jail nearly nine months from the date she entered and a mere 12 hours before her custody trial. Maria was granted joint custody of her daughter and remains separated from her abusive spouse.

For women like Maria, the threats of arrest and deportation that they hear from their abusers are very real. Maria was separated from her daughter for nine months, and she faced the real possibility that she would permanently lose custody. These threats make it difficult for women to reach out to the police for help.

To curb the fear clients’ face, Tahirih’s Legal Department has begun a few different initiatives. First, they have reached out to local law enforcement agencies to provide training on working with battered immigrant women and to address ways the law enforcement agencies can overcome the cultural and linguistic barriers faced in working with this vulnerable population. In addition, over the past year Tahirih have created two “Know Your Rights” brochures, one for social service agencies and another for potential clients. The brochures are designed to let people know what legal status immigrant women fleeing violence may be eligible for under the law and to provide them with answers to many of their questions. Finally, in the year ahead, Tahirih will be working more closely with our clients to let them know what their rights are if they are ever stopped and questioned by ICE.

This ongoing issue highlights Tahirih’s three-part approach to protect immigrant women and girls fleeing gender-based violence. Along with the public education and direct services efforts described above, Tahirih continues to engage in public policy initiatives to address law enforcement protection of immigrant victims of crime.

*Names have been changed to protect her safety and privacy.

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