This article appeared in The Intercept on February 21, 2017.
LAST YEAR, C. paid close attention to a presidential election for the first time in her life. A 31-year-old mother of four, C. was born in Mexico and has lived in Los Angeles since she was two-years-old. After Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, C., who asked me not to use her name because she fears being deported, watched with alarm as his nativist message swelled the defiant movement behind him like a steroid. Unlike most observers, she was convinced he would win: “I know there’s a lot of racist people,” she told me. “A lot.”
C. was born in Puebla, Mexico. She is pretty and stylish, and was dressed in black the day I spoke to her. Despite her prescience about the election, even after Trump was sworn into office, she held onto a sliver of hope that all his hate speech was just a ploy to get votes. Then, last month, President Trump issued his temporary ban on travel into the United States by refugees and the citizens of 7 Muslim-majority countries. That was the moment when C. finally let go of any doubt that the danger she faced from the new administration was real.
She has a very specific reason to fear the Trump administration. Her husband, an American citizen, is currently serving a 6-month sentence for domestic violence, and C. does not yet have full custody over their children. If she is deported, her children will remain in the U.S. with their father. They will be alone to face his near homicidal rage.
Even before Trump became president, C.’s fear of deportation, combined with the lackluster response by the police to her reports of abuse, discouraged her from seeking police protection and trapped her in a horrific cycle of violence at the hands of her husband. Now, with Trump calling for direct collaboration between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), any shred of trust she had left in law enforcement has disappeared, making an unimaginably difficult situation an impossible one.
Last month, Trump signed an executive order to cut off federal funds to “sanctuary jurisdictions” — cities and municipalities that forbid local police from assisting federal agents in identifying and deporting undocumented immigrants. On Tuesday, the President issued a set of memos reiterating his directive to ICE and Customs and Border Protection to deputize local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. Elected officials in sanctuary cities have defended their policies by arguing that collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE erodes trust between immigrant communities and the police. Immigrants are less likely to report crimes or act as witnesses, sanctuary advocates claim, when doing so could result in their deportation.
Even in Los Angeles, which has — at least on paper — prohibited its police officers from engaging in immigration enforcement since 1979, immigrants like C. are wary of the police. C. was taught by her parents from a young age to avoid the police at all costs. When I asked her about the Los Angeles Police Department’s non-cooperation policy with ICE, her response was instantaneous: “It’s a lie,” she said.
“LAPD cooperates more than they suggest in their public statements,” Emi MacLean, an attorney with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, told me. Special Order 40, the 1979 policy, allows for “significant cooperation” with ICE, she explained. “We’re concerned that LAPD shares information with ICE and have conducted joint operations that have expanded in scope, which has led to people being deported.”
If the Trump administration gets its way, things will move much, much faster in this direction, in Los Angeles and throughout the country, and undocumented victims of domestic violence will find themselves at the mercy of their abusers.
It was C.’s profound distrust of the police that prevented her from reporting her husband’s violence, which began on their honeymoon, when she was pregnant. Her husband is an alcoholic and would drink every weekend. Every time he got drunk, he would beat her. C. wanted desperately to leave him, but without documentation, she could only get employment in the underground economy. She was afraid she would end up on the street with her kids.
C.’s husband used her immigration status against her. He kept promising he would get her a green card when he filed his taxes, but he never did. “He wanted me to depend on him for everything,” C. said. He would routinely threaten to call immigration authorities on her. “That’s part of the reason I stayed with him,” she told me. “I was scared to get deported and have my kids taken away from me.”
One day in 2013, C.’s husband was choking and hitting her, and her son, who was 9 years old, dialed 911. When his father saw that his son had called the police, he attacked him. When the police arrived, they arrested C.’s husband.
C.’s husband was eligible for bail, and C. was afraid that someone would post it and that he would come after her again. So she and her children were forced to move into a homeless shelter (C. had lived in a homeless shelter once before, as a child, when her parents lost their Section 8 housing due to their immigration status). Without a work permit, C. could only get the kinds of jobs that paid in cash. She had no pay stubs to show to a landlord to prove a steady source of income.
After a month in jail, C.’s husband was released on probation, given a temporary restraining order, and was required to take classes in parenting and domestic violence. During this time, C. had managed to obtain a work permit. She got a job at Target and found an apartment in the San Fernando Valley.
But in 2014, after her husband’s probation ended and his restraining order expired, he came back for her. He saw that she had a car, a job, and an apartment. He broke into her apartment, took her car keys, and crashed her car. Then he drove it back into her parking spot. C. called the police to report the theft, but they told her she had no evidence he was the one who took the car. “It’s just your word,” C. said she was told.
Then C.’s husband started showing up at her work, and coming into her apartment while she was home. He beat her up and raped her. Even though she feared deportation, C. called the police over and over. But they did nothing for her. “We get those calls all the time and you guys always go back,” one officer told her, referring to domestic violence victims. After that, she stopped calling them. “You guys will do something once I’m dead,” she recalls thinking. “Probably that’s what it’s going to take for you guys to realize my kids are in trouble.”
C. started having nightmares about being killed by her husband. She worked out a plan with a friend. If she texted the numbers “911” her friend would call the police.
One day last December, C’s husband was punching her in the stomach and slapping her. He told their son, “I want you to see me kill your mom.” She managed to text her friend, and the police came and arrested her husband once again.
He was given a six-month sentence for his crime. He’s scheduled for release in May. This time, he will be released into a country in which the president is trying to force local police departments to round up and deport people like his wife, making it less likely that she will ever dare to call the police on him again.
Since Trump became president, C.’s fear of the police has surged. When she sees a police officer, she makes no eye contact and turns around and walks the other way. When she leaves the domestic violence shelter she currently lives in with her children, she avoids walking down major thoroughfares, preferring to zig zag through residential areas. C.’s son doesn’t want to go to school anymore, fearing that his mom could be taken from him while he’s there.
“I’m freaked out, paranoid,” C. told me. But her fear is not irrational. ICE has been conducting raids throughout Southern California, including areas of the San Fernando Valley near her old apartment. Last week, ICE agents in El Paso, Texas, entered a county courthouse and arrested an undocumented victim of domestic violence who had just been granted a protective order.
Jennie Pasquarella, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told me she has had numerous clients in situations similar to C.’s. “It’s a well-founded fear,” she said.
C. currently has a U visa —a type of temporary visa issued to crime victims who are willing to help the police in their investigation — and in normal times that would provide her with protection against deportation. But these are abnormal times, and C. was undocumented for most of her life. There’s a sense among immigrants, their attorneys, and their advocates that under this administration anything could happen. “I think her fears are founded,” C.’s lawyer told me. “I wouldn’t have said that a few months ago.”
Trump’s deportation agenda rests on the premise that undocumented immigrants in the United States wish to remain here to avail themselves of employment opportunities and government services. But C. is so distressed with her precarious existence in America that she wants to move to Mexico, a country she has not lived in or even visited since she was an infant. Her parents moved back to Puebla, and she hopes to move there with her children. “At least I won’t be walking in fear,” she told me. But without full custody, she can’t take her children with her. Until she obtains it, she’s trapped in Trump’s America.
“I try to be strong, like it don’t bother me,” she told me, her voice breaking. “But I’m scared. Because my kids are all I have.”
Later, when I asked her if she had anything to say that we hadn’t discussed in our interview, C. added a note of defiance to her despair.
“I’m proud to be a Mexican, no matter what,” she said. “Proud. Donald Trump can’t take that away from us.”