Millet Vargas, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, is pictured earlier this year in her backyard with two of her daughters, Esmeralda, 20, and Estephanie, 18. “What I received from Catholic Charities was priceless,” said Vargas, who left an abusive man and became a U.S. citizen with the help of the nonprofit. Vargas said she’s concerned that fear within the immigrant community means more women will remain in abusive relationships. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Millet Vargas, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, is pictured earlier this year in her backyard with two of her daughters, Esmeralda, 20, and Estephanie, 18. “What I received from Catholic Charities was priceless,” said Vargas, who left an abusive man and became a U.S. citizen with the help of the nonprofit. Vargas said she’s concerned that fear within the immigrant community means more women will remain in abusive relationships. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Amid changing immigration laws and deportation threats, advocates and lawyers have observed a decrease in undocumented victims of domestic violence reporting the abuse to law enforcement and reaching out for help. Staff and partner agencies of Catholic Charities of Oregon — the largest nonprofit immigration legal services provider in the state — have witnessed the fallout from fear in their work across the region.

“People are worried about calling the police because they believe they will turn them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and some have stopped seeking services,” said Manuel Gutierrez, a victim advocate with a Catholic Charities partner agency in Umatilla.

Last spring, seven national organizations, including the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, co-sponsored a survey of nearly 600 immigration attorneys and advocates across the country. More than 76% reported that immigrant survivors have concerns about contacting police.

Multiple times per year, Catholic Charities hosts information sessions for immigrants in rural Oregon to provide free legal assistance to victims.

Typically “the room is full of people,” said attorney Sarah Purce, assistant director of the nonprofit’s Immigration Legal Services. “At the last event there were zero people. They were too afraid to come.”

Compounded fear

On average, victims of domestic violence — most are women — make seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship before staying away for good, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Fear of an abuser’s retaliation, embarrassment and a lack of financial resources to provide for children are among the many reasons victims stay, said Norma Obrist, a bilingual victim advocate with Tides for Change. The agency provides shelter and support for victims in Tillamook.

Even without deportation threats, survivors in the Hispanic immigrant community confront additional hurdles, Obrist said. A limited knowledge of English makes it difficult to connect with services, and there’s a paucity of Spanish-language resources.

For victims coming from Central and South American cultures, there also can be “a sense of male privilege, that men have this power and control,” said Obrist. And she pointed out that a high percentage of Hispanic immigrant victims are Catholic, and some mistakenly think it’s sinful to leave an abusive marriage.

Those who are undocumented face even greater barriers.

“One of the primary things we hear when we talk to undocumented survivors is that their partner will call ICE on them if they leave,” Purce said.

Domestic abusers threatening their victims with immigration consequences is nothing new, but a broader anxiety now exits, said Obrist.

Catholic Charities does not have figures on how many victims are too scared to contact the police or testify against their abuser, “but anecdotally we hear from those who are too afraid to go to court,” said Purce.

The longstanding sanctuary law in Oregon says local law enforcement officers are not supposed to contact ICE if they believe an individual lacks legal documentation but has committed no other crime.

“But there aren’t repercussions if they do contact ICE,” Purce said. So while undocumented immigrants in Oregon have more protections than those in other states, their fears are not unfounded.

“What I tell clients is that I can’t guarantee it’s safe to talk with law enforcement, but it should be safe; they should be there to protect you,” she said.

Undocumented victims living in rural areas encounter a multiplicity of challenges when it comes to getting help, said Obrist.

“If someone wanted to abuse their partner and not get caught, places like Tillamook County are the perfect spot,” she said. “There’s a lot of isolation. The population is spread out and you often don’t have a neighbor nearby. You might not have cellphone reception. The bus system only runs in the town, and if they don’t have a driver’s license or car, there’s not a way to get out,” she said.

There’s also a scarcity of support and legal expertise for victims in rural communities. That’s why Catholic Charities of Oregon has taken its Immigration Legal Services on the road.

Constrained outreach

Through its general program, based in Portland, Catholic Charities offers low-cost legal services to undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence. But for several years it’s also received a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice to reach the same demographic in rural parts of the state.

Immigration and Legal Services staff hold free educational events in collaboration with eight partner agencies across Oregon. Conducted in Spanish, the sessions include information on what forms of legal relief are available to victims.

As part of the grant the agency also provides trainings for service providers, such as law enforcement and victim advocates. Among other topics, Catholic Charities staff discuss how to identify those who may be eligible for its services. The events sometimes are held online — an approach that may expand in the future.

But the $1.1 million three-year DOJ grant recently was reduced by $350,000, just as the need for accurate legal information increased. The result was the four-attorney staff was cut to three. The Oregon Law Foundation provided a two-year grant to partially augment the loss, but that ended in September, shrinking the program to just two attorneys.

“It’s definitely hard to keep services at the same level with reduced funding,” said Purce.

Fear places further limits on who the agency can help.

In July, ICE agents stopped a van of immigrants headed to work in the fields of Umatilla County. Several workers were arrested.

Umatilla has a sizeable Hispanic population, and after the arrests it had an eerily vacant feel, said Gutierrez, a seasoned victim advocate.

“Safeway is usually packed with Hispanics shopping, and it was almost empty,” he said.

“Hearing of arrests can be crippling to a small community,” added Purce. One of the agency’s educational sessions was on the calendar for soon after the arrests. It was the one no one attended.

Legalization or deportation?

The legal options for undocumented abuse victims include what’s known as the U visa, which Catholic Charities assists with in large numbers. Yet there’s a backlog of the visas, an increased number of denials and new guidelines from the federal government that mean the stakes are higher for applicants.

Established by the federal government in 2000, U visas offer a temporary legal status and a path toward citizenship for victims of violent crime, including domestic violence. The goal is to improve law enforcements’ ability to investigate serious crimes and to help victims secure safety. To be eligible, a survivor must somehow aid law enforcement, for example reporting the crime or testifying in court.

Before applications can be sent to the federal government for consideration, a law enforcement agency must certify that the victim was helpful in addressing a crime.

In the past, the certifications were approved inconsistently across Oregon, but a bill passed this year should make it more consistent, according to Purce.

Obtaining legal status can be “life-changing for a victim and help them build a safe life for themselves and their families,” she said. “Not being able to drive away yourself, make your own money to feed your children; they are really trapped.” With a U visa, survivors receive work authorization, which means that they can work legally, obtain a Social Security number and can get a driver’s license.

Prior to six months ago, victims could apply for the visa without risk of deportation if the claim was denied. Now, they will be placed in removal proceedings if they are undocumented and withdraw their application, or if it is denied, explained Purce.

“You tell them, ‘Here’s a potential thing that might help you in 10 years, but it might put you in removal proceedings. Do you want it?’”

Weighing the risks

Millet Vargas, an immigrant from Mexico, lacked legal documentation when she discovered her partner was abusing her 5-year-old daughter. But she did not lack clarity about what action to take.

“There was no hesitation about contacting the police,” said 43-year-old Vargas, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton. “I didn’t think about my legal status; I was just thinking about my child.”

She stayed in her car hiding from her abuser while waiting for the police to apprehend him. In the back seat was her oldest daughter, her toddler and her 5-month-old.

“What happened is so painful it is hard to explain the feelings,” she said. Her voice faltered. “My faith has kept me moving forward, keeping hope that everything is going to be OK.”

Vargas eventually connected with Immigration Legal Services, and with the agency’s help obtained a U visa. Because her abused daughter was a minor, Vargas could be included in an application. She became a U.S. citizen in 2016.

“What I received from Catholic Charities was priceless,” said Vargas, who has started her own business and seen her oldest daughter off to college. “For me, it’s the American dream.”

Vargas never questions her decision to call the police. She does think if the current restrictive U visa directives had been in place when she applied, she may not have taken the risk to become a citizen.

“I would’ve been afraid of what would happen to me, that my family would be separated,” she said.

Vargas said she worries about the victims who will not leave abusers due to fear of deportation or family separation. “I know that because immigrants are scared a lot of women will continue to live in terrible situations — their children, too.”