To most, the city of Dilley, Texas, with its population of 3,894 people, may not seem to be of much consequence. But Dilley is also home to the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest immigration detention facility in the United States. For several hundred immigrant women and children, Dilley is where they meet their fate: deportation or the long road to legal status in the United States.
During my final year of law school, I spent a week at the South Texas Family Residential Center as part of my school’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, helping residents at the center file U-Visas, T-Visas and asylum applications. Immigrants who have been victims of crimes or abuse since arriving in the United States have the opportunity to apply for the U-Visa, which if awarded, confers on them temporary legal status and a path to permanent residency. The U-Visa is instrumental in helping immigrants, such as the women I met at the South Texas Family Residential Center, escape the cycle of abuse and achieve legal status.
It is impossible to forget that we are in the midst of a highly politicized national debate about immigration policy in the United States. At the detention center, however, political rhetoric is superseded by reality. The women we were there to assist had fled all sorts of evil in their home countries: poverty, gang violence and domestic abuse. During our interviews, many women courageously expressed, to absolute strangers who did not share their native language, how their upbringings in certain areas in Latin America were riddled with physical, sexual, or mental abuse, machismo culture, and negative female stereotypes. A striking number had been abused their whole lives, by fathers, spouses and other relatives. Then, despite having finally escaped the mistreatment they suffered at home, the cycle of abuse continued in the United States. It is the U-Visa that finally offers a way out.
However, although the U-Visa application process confers certain benefits, applicants face significant hurdles. In 2017, the New York Times reported on the trepidations that many immigrant women experience when reporting domestic abuse, noting that “since the presidential election, there has been a sharp downturn in reports of sexual assault and domestic violence among Latinos throughout the country, and many experts attribute the decline to fears of deportation.” Many immigrants fear that in the process of reporting a crime, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will deport them to their home countries. As a result, many victims ultimately decide not to press charges.
In June 2018, the New York Times reported that this trend has continued. Victims are faced with an impossible choice: stay in abusive relationships where their lives and the lives of their children are threatened, or report the abuse to authorities, risking deportation or even separation from their children. The article points out another critical limitation of the U-Visa: a statutory cap that limits the number of U-Visas available to 10,000 per year. In 2017, the number of applications filed was more than three times that amount.
As a lawyer, it can be discouraging to see legal tools at our disposal so significantly diminished. But even if certain tools have been weakened, the law still leaves open possibilities for immigrants who have been victims of abuse that they likely won’t find elsewhere, and there are a number of organizations—Her Justice, NMIC, The Door, among others—that serve as resources and advocates for those navigating the legal process.
I’ve seen the work that these organizations do and the value they provide first hand. One of the first cases I worked on at Debevoise involved preparing a U-Visa application for an immigrant woman without legal status in the United States who had been the victim of domestic abuse. Reporting domestic and other kinds of abuse is difficult enough. Victims not only have to go through the challenge of potentially confronting their abuser, but also the fear that they could be deported to the very place where, for many, the abuse originated. As lawyers, we can play a role by working with legal services organizations to ensure that victims feel safe reporting abuse and understand their rights throughout the process.
So often we are able to keep an emotional distance from what we see in the news because of how removed it is from the way we experience our own lives on a daily basis. The week that I spent in Dilley, Texas changed that for me. The women I met were not abstractions or statistics. Their concerns weren’t political and they didn’t have agendas. Absent the discord of our political climate, their needs were clear and present: to end the cycle of abuse for themselves and their children. It was a hard week, but a rewarding one, and I’m thankful that I now have the opportunity to continue working with immigrant women for whom the U-Visa could be a path to a better tomorrow.
Rebecca Urquiola is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.
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