For as long as she’d lived in the United States, Maria was in hiding.
She was hiding from immigration officials, because she was undocumented. And she was hiding from the father of her children, a drug-addled, cruel career criminal she’d left Mexico to escape.
“If I seek for help they might deport me,” she said, “but if I don’t he might kill me.”
Like so many other undocumented women in the US, Maria – who asked that a pseudonym be used in this story – would eventually have to choose between these two dangers. Many women fleeing across borders from abusive partners are having to make that same deadly calculation.
“Domestic violence is one of the main motivations for women fleeing Central America,” Amarela Varela, a migration and gender scholar at the Autonomous University of Mexico City, said. Yet at the same time, once they reach the US, undocumented women are uniquely at risk. After the Trump administration issued an executive order prioritizing even law-abiding undocumented immigrants for deportation, going to the police became much more dangerous for them.
As early as February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) arrested a woman in El Paso at a courthouse, where she had gone to obtain a protective order against her partner. An Ice agent sat through the proceeding, and arrested her after the order was granted. In Denver, the city attorney reported that her office might have to drop four domestic violence cases after victims refused to testify, for fear of being arrested by Ice agents.
By a month later, some police chiefs in cities with high undocumented populations noticed that reports of domestic violence had dropped sharply. Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles chief of police, said that reports of sexual assault had dropped 25% among Latinos, while domestic violence reports had dropped by 10%. The rates remained steady in other ethnic groups, he said.
Maria may not have known these statistics, but she knew the dangers. To be deported would be a disaster, but remaining hidden became harder and harder.
“I was at my wits’ end,” she said through an interpreter, on the phone from a safe house in Minnesota. “I really didn’t know what was going to happen.”
• • •
In Mexico, when the father of her children beat her, Maria first went to the police. “But police and the authorities are afraid,” she said, “so nothing came of it.” Her former partner was a member of a criminal organization; when the same local police who refused to help her started extorting her for money, she knew she had to leave the country.
“I decided to come to the United States to hide,” she said.
With her mother, her sister and her two children, she crossed the border in 2015.
Life in the US brought a mixture of relief and exhaustion. To survive she was working two jobs, at a fast food restaurant and a cleaning company. At the same time, though, she thought she’d gotten away clean. “I saw that nobody knew me here and nobody was going to find me,” she said.
That peace ended abruptly.
She dropped off her son at the bus stop one morning and walked back to the house she was renting. As she opened the door, she felt someone pull the door open from the other side. She had been seeing a man recently, and for a second she thought it must be him, waiting in her house to surprise her.
“But it was the father of my children,” she said.
He threw her to the floor. He beat her, and he pulled her by her hair to the bedroom. Then he shoved his wallet into her mouth to gag her, and he raped her.
“I felt so stupid,” she said, her voice breaking. “I was just so frozen. I couldn’t do anything.”
He took money from her purse, and then he left. For hours, she sat locked in the house, in shock, until she had to pull herself together: it was time to pick up her son from school.
“To this day, I don’t know how he found us,” she said.
She didn’t want to go to the police. Police in Mexico had preyed on her; police in the US might turn her over to immigration authorities. The risk seemed too great.
This dilemma was the impetus behind the U visa, created in 2000 to give undocumented victims of crime – victims of domestic violence in particular – a safe way to report perpetrators. Ten of thousands U visas are issued each year, granting holders legal residency and authorization to work.
Maria would have been a perfect candidate for a U visa, had she known about it. But immigration advocates have been wary about counseling women to apply ever since Trump’s executive order directed police departments to cooperate with Ice. “How do we do safety planning with victims when we don’t know if just having interaction with law enforcement will put them in danger before they can even get a U visa?” one advocate asked a Slate reporter in March.
• • •
Instead of going to the police, Maria went to her landlord and explained what had happened; she was able to break the lease and move her family to a new address.
But her former partner found her again.
This time, when he showed up, her boyfriend was home. He managed to wrestle the other man outside, and the two of them screamed at each other while she and her mother tried to keep the children from coming out of their rooms to see what was happening.
It was important that they not see their father, she said, because she had told them he was dead.
This was around the time of Trump’s inauguration, and the news seemed to back up what her former partner said. She plummeted into a deep depression. “With Trump becoming president and all the persecution that there’s been of undocumented people, I just became ill,” she said. Overwhelmed with anxiety, she stopped leaving the house. “I thought I was really going crazy,” she said. Her hair began to fall out.
“I remember that many nights I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I would wake up and wake up my partner and ask him to please if anything happens to me make sure my children are taken care of. He cried with me, and he told me nothing was going to happened to me.” But she wasn’t reassured.
They moved again. This time, when he found her again, she was alone. He beat her, hitting and kicking her in the face. Again, he took money from her purse. She told him she’d call the police.
“He laughed,” she said. “He told me I was stupid and that I was going to get deported.”
In the midst of that despair, she made a hard, logical calculation. There were only a few possible outcomes for her, she determined: she could be deported, he could kill her or she could seek help.
“I thought, ‘Ok, I have these three options,’” she said. “If I don’t ask for help, the only two options left are either I’ll be deported or he’s going to kill me. I might as well find out what happens if I seek for help.”
She reasoned it out soberly, but in a way the decision had also crystalised while her former partner was beating her. “In that moment, the only thing I wanted to do was to survive.”
• • •
Making the choice was hard. Acting on it was even harder.
A few friends – girlfriends from work – told her to go to the police. But they were American citizens; they didn’t understand her dilemma.
One told her about a local Latino justice organization, though, and she called the number. It was hard to get an appointment – they were only open at certain times – and when she finally met with an advocate there, she said, that person simply referred her to the Mexican consulate. When she called the consulate, they referred her to yet another organization – Casa de Esperanza. They also gave her the name of a local Latino police officer who often worked with the consulate.
She met with the police officer. “When I got there he started asking me questions and started drawing his own conclusions,” she said. “It seemed he had decided I had made up the whole story to get benefits from the US government.”
She burst into tears. “So what is it that you want me to do?” she asked.
“And he said, ‘Well I can’t help you right now, you need to wait until it happens again and then maybe something can be done.”
She didn’t want to wait until her former partner came to beat her again. She didn’t know what to do. But she’d already made an appointment with Casa de Esperanza. The advocate she met with there, Adriana Tizcareno-Zamudio, said she’d help the woman file a protective order.
“I told her what had happened with this other police officer, and she said, ‘That’s not right.’ She gave me a lot of support. She said whatever happens, she was going to go with me.”
Tizcareno-Zamudio said later that she was dismayed to hear how the officer had behaved, but not surprised. “So many officers aren’t trained to talk to victims,” she said.
She wasn’t sure how it would go when they went to file a complaint together, but this time, they found a police officer who listened. As the Tizcareno-Zamudio translated, Maria explained what had happened. “That police person was so kind to me,” she said. “We sat down and he told me that he promised me whatever happened I could rest assured I could call the police, and they were not going to call immigration, they were there to help. I felt liberated to realize that there was someone who would back me up if something happened.”
• • •
Maria knows she, in some perverse ways, was lucky. Contact with the police and legal system remains fraught for undocumented US residents; last week, lawyers picketed outside a courthouse in New York after Ice agents arrested a man there. It was at least the 40th such arrest in New York City alone, according to state officials.
But she’s feeling better than she did about the world. She has a protective order now, and she is attending group therapy with other survivors of sexual abuse, and she has a therapist. She’s looking into getting therapy for her children and her mother as well.
She is still in hiding. But she feels, she said, “mas segura” – more safe.
“If he ever comes to bother me again,” she said, “maybe he’s the one who’s going to be deported.”