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Domestic Abuse Keeps Some Immigrants “in the Shadows”

Karen Pulfer Focht

This story was produced in partnership with the Institute for Public Service Reporting, and is part of the series Surging in Silence, which is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Domestic violence is often considered an equal opportunity crime, cutting across economic, racial and ethnic lines. But the stakes are higher for undocumented Hispanic victims, who may fear trading a toxic relationship for legal exposure or deportation. Brenda Flores knows that fear well. A bilingual therapist with the Shelby County Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center, she works hard to gain clients’ trust. Many tell her, “You work with the government. Who's to say that you're not working with ICE?”

Flores offers domestic violence counseling, mostly to Spanish speakers. When the pandemic began, she says roughly half of her caseload dropped off.

“A lot of my clients are undocumented and so they're trying to stay under the radar, which is understandable,” she said.

Yet so many already live under the radar. That makes them “easy targets” for predators, especially in recent years, says Mark Wynn, a former Nashville police lieutenant and family violence expert. 

During the last four years, there's been such a hatred of immigrants, that undocumented immigrant women have stopped reporting to major police departments the crimes committed against them,” said Wynn.

Credit Karen Pulfer Focht
Ines Negrette with CasaLuz.

That is precisely what makes her clients “really, really vulnerable,” says Ines Negrette, the founder and director of Memphis’ CasaLuz, which is Spanish for “house of light.” The nonprofit helps Hispanic victims of violent crime with everything from finding food and emergency shelter to advocacy and legal aid. All in Spanish. 

And while other organizations that serve victims saw a drop in Hispanic clients during the pandemic, Negrette says the culturally specific Casa Luz was busier than ever. 

“Everything has increased this year,” according to the Venezuelan-born former attorney. “What increased the most have been the orders of protection.”

Those orders, issued by judges, outline legal consequences for abusers. The cases are more violent than ever, she says. In fact, domestic violence rose — in Memphis and nationwide — during the pandemic. Stress makes violent people more violent, and abusers thrive by isolating victims. 

It’s hard for anyone to leave an abuser, but when a victim is also undocumented, it can take even longer. Negrette says many fear that calling the police will lead to family separation or deportation, which is not the case. But the threat looms large — especially if the partner is a citizen but the victim is not.

Negrette says that some of CasaLuz’s most traumatized clients are those who were brought to Memphis by “their U.S. citizen or permanent resident husband.”

Abusive spouses purposely don’t change their wives’ immigration status, says Negrette, using it instead to maintain power and control, which is the basis of domestic violence.

They’ll tell their spouse, “’I'm the citizen. You are nobody here. You don't have a status, I will take the kids away from you, I will call ICE on you.’ And that woman is trapped.”

At least, she may think that’s the case, says Negrette. There is legal hope, specifically for them. Undocumented wives — or ex-wives — of abusive citizens and permanent residents can apply on their own for a Green Card. There’s also a special visa for the undocumented victims of undocumented partners.

Neither process is guaranteed, and not every victim gets their visa or Green Card application approved. But there are options for some of the most vulnerable victims of domestic abuse.  

“They can have legal status,” said Negrette. “But they don't know until they come to us.”

And that’s one of the challenges for an immigrant community so used to being in the shadows, she says. Other organizations offer similar services to CasaLuz, but Negrette and her staff understand the legal and cultural resources needed to bring undocumented Hispanic victims into the light.