REACH’s work with immigrant survivors of domestic violence is nothing new. We have deep roots in Waltham, a diverse community with one of the largest and fastest-growing Latinx populations in the state. We are proud to serve any and all survivors, regardless of where they come from, how they got here, or what their immigration status is. Everyone has a right to feel safe in their relationships.
What’s new is the political climate that’s emerged with the new administration, and the unprecedented level of fear we’re seeing in the immigrant community. In response, REACH Community Advocates have had to take these new realities into account when providing support and safety planning with survivors.
With the rhetoric around immigration heating up, reports of hate crimes on the rise, and stories in the news about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arresting domestic violence victims who try to access the justice system, immigrants are afraid and unsure who to trust. The Latinx victims of domestic violence we work with already face significant barriers in accessing bilingual services. Abusers often use the victim’s immigration status as a means to force them into staying in a violent home, and victims have always been afraid to reach out to law enforcement due to fear of being deported or negative experiences with law enforcement in their home country.
Our response to this has always been to reassure survivors that there’s a difference between the police and ICE, and that you have a right to get a restraining order. Now, with these new realities – hearing that ICE has been in the area, including near the Waltham Court, we have to do a new level of safety planning with undocumented survivors who are headed to court. This can involve making sure they have plans in place, including contingency plans and power of attorney for their kids, in case they are detained by ICE and separated from their children.
Years ago, through our experience working with this community, we realized it wasn’t enough just to provide services to immigrant survivors, we also wanted to help them participate fully in society. We began the Latinas Know Your Rights (LKYR) program to promote the civic engagement and empowerment of Latina immigrant domestic violence survivors. REACH conducts LKYR in collaboration with Greater Boston Legal Services and the Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Program at Newton Wellesley Hospital to provide Spanish-speaking women with resources that can aid survivors of domestic violence. This helps build capacity from within the Latina community to educate their peers and break systemic barriers that immigrant survivors face.
The program consists of a workshop series to build an understanding of the U.S. legal system and dispel common myths about domestic violence and law enforcement, and address concerns about children and families. In the past year, we’ve partnered with a local church, Centro Cristiano de Adoracion de Waltham, and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office to bring “Community Action Hours” to the LKYR seminars. We lined up Spanish-speaking attorneys to provide advice on matters involving laws and scams that disproportionately affect immigrants. The workshops focused on workers’ rights, identity theft and scams, landlord-tenant rights, buying used cars and MA lemon laws, civil rights, insurance and financial literacy, and consumer rights. Through this collaboration, survivors who previously would not have pursued their rights due to lack of knowledge or lack of access to attorneys in their own community are now better equipped to prevent further victimization.
In recent months we took this workshop model a step further and a community-wide “Know Your Rights” geared toward undocumented immigrants. For this we did extensive safety planning in the event that ICE showed up, including having a list of ACLU attorneys on standby willing to represent anyone detained. The fact that about 200 people showed up, on a freezing cold day in February despite the level of fear in the community, shows how much of a need there is for reliable information.
Part of the program design has traditionally been that at the conclusion of the workshop series, we then encourage participants to take on an issue of importance in their communities and offer them resources to organize around it and advocate for change. Past participants have held community meetings, lobbied at the MA State House, and spoken out on things like the Safe Driving Bill and Secure Communities. This activism component has taken on an increased urgency and importance in the new climate. Recently, LKYR participants have accompanied REACH Community Advocates to the State House to speak out in opposition to blurring the lines between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials. These controversial arrangements (known as “287G”) effectively deputize local law enforcement agents to perform the functions of federal immigration agents, often costing communities money and making people who are fearful of ICE now also fearful of the local police whose job it is to protect them. Representatives were reportedly really moved by survivors’ testimonies, like that of one survivor we work with whose husband was raping and beating her, yet she was afraid to call the police for fear of being deported.
Sadly, we have also seen instances of people taking advantage of this fear in the immigrant community. We work closely with survivors to find adequate legal representation, (which is desperately needed) and accompany them to appointments when we can. We’ve seen attorneys with little to no experience in immigration law trying to capitalize on this increased demand, as well as landlords increasing rent while letting properties fall into disrepair, knowing that immigrant tenants feel they have few options. We’re also working with survivors whose children report an increase in racially-charged bullying at school.
REACH’s ongoing and adapting work with Spanish-speaking survivors is possible because of both public and private support. Through the Massachusetts Office of Victims Assistance, we have received funding from the Victims of Crime Act, which allowed us to expand our staff and bring on even more Spanish-speaking advocates. But in these fearful times, the need is growing – as abusers feel empowered to do whatever they want (not to mention disreputable lawyers and landlords), and victims are terrified to reach out for help. Many feel that their only options are to stay and endure the abuse, or to be deported and be separated from their children. At REACH, they not only find support and safety planning in their own language, but an opportunity to use their voice and stand up for their rights and others in their community. As one of REACH’s Bilingual Community Advocates put it, “They are looking to us for wisdom…and hope.”
If you believe everyone has a right to be safe and free from abuse in their relationship, no matter their immigration status, please help REACH continue this work.