Immigration crackdown makes women afraid to testify against abusers, experts warn

CHARLOTTE — One morning last January, Maria made a call that would change her life.

Maria, a 39-year-old mother from Colombia, spoke no English. She had no friends nearby, no money and had overstayed her visa aftercoming to the U.S. legally. But after her fiancé allegedly assaulted her and her 15-year-old son during an argument, she said a prayer and picked up the phone.

“It was terrifying to call the police,” said Maria, whose last name is being withheld because she is a victim of domestic violence. “But I dug up the courage. I told myself I had to do something.”

That call would prove fateful. Maria’s fiancé, a U.S. citizen named Danny, was charged with assault. In July, as Maria and her son appeared at the Mecklenburg County courthouse for a hearing related to the incident, federal immigration agents arrested them. Maria and her son were handcuffed and led away as she cried for her other child, a toddler she had left in daycare.

Their arrest is more fuel for a long-simmering debate over Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s presence inside the courthouses of major U.S. cities, and raised questions about the agency’s treatment of domestic violence victims.

“ICE coming in and arresting Maria and her son puts a lot of fear in a lot of people’s heart,” said Herman Little, the defense attorney who was with Maria that day. “You have a situation where undocumented victims are scared to come to court because they fear they are going to get deported.”

In an exclusive interview with NBC News, the newly promoted deputy director of ICE, Matthew Albence, said that arrests of undocumented immigrants like Maria will continue, whether inside or outside a courthouse.

“If an individual is here illegally in this country, they’re always subject to arrest for that criminal violation,” Albence said. “We have compassion to all victims of crimes that are here illegally. We have compassion toward victims of crimes that are United States citizens that have crimes committed against them by illegal aliens. That said, we have a job to do.”

Officials in several cities, including police chiefs and district attorneys, say that immigration enforcement operations inside courthouses have hampered their ability to investigate and prosecute crimes.

“We rely very heavily at the local level on cooperation from our witnesses and from our victims to ensure that cases can be prosecuted,” said Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson. “What we’ve found in Denver is people are not showing up because they’re afraid that they might get apprehended in the hallways.”

For undocumented victims of domestic violence, Bronson said, that fear is particularly palpable. Since President Trump’s inauguration, she said, she’s had to drop 30 cases of domestic violence because the victims were too afraid of deportation to cooperate and appear in court.

“It means that abusers are going without consequences,” Bronson said. “It means that abusers are beginning to feel that they are immune from prosecution, and it’s become, unfortunately, a tool to further victimize women who are the victims of domestic violence.”

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Hannah Rappleye, Stephanie Gosk, Brenda Breslauer and John Carlos Frey