Sanctuary Isn't Enough For Victims of Domestic Abuse 


Jane called the police, and not everyone does that. The cops didn’t scare her, but her husband did.

He’d been abusive since the start of the relationship. He would yell, drain money from her savings, and make threats to call immigration, but that night things got physical. “That was the first time he choked me,” she tells me on a windy morning in March, placing both hands near her throat as she says it.

We’re sitting in an office on the first floor of the domestic violence shelter where she and her four-year-old son have been living for the last few months. “When I tried to call the police, my husband smashed my cell phone. It was totally broken into pieces.”

It was after midnight and Jane ran through the halls of her apartment building, trying to find someone who would let her use their phone. When she did she called the police again—they finally arrived, arrested her husband, who is a citizen, and brought her to a hospital nearby.

From there, a social worker referred Jane to a shelter for homeless families, which directed her to Safe Horizon, the largest domestic violence service provider in New York City. Within the week, Jane and her son had moved into an emergency shelter on a tree-lined residential block in one of the five boroughs. (I’ve changed Jane’s name and omitted other details that could identify her or her location.)

It all happened fast, but things feel calmer now. “I didn’t know I could live in a place like this,” she says. The apartments upstairs are small and tidy. There’s a backyard and a colorful play space in the basement. Her son, who is from a previous relationship, is doing so well at daycare that his teachers have started giving him workbooks for older kids. “It is like a home here,” she says.

The system is a stopgap by design. It’s meant to remove someone from a dangerous situation and help them into whatever comes next. But Jane can’t move on. Her immigration status won’t let her.

The city’s emergency response system has worked for Jane, who came to the United States from China a little more than two years ago and is, along with her son, undocumented. But that system is a stopgap by design. It’s meant to remove someone from a dangerous situation and help them into whatever comes next. But Jane can’t move on. Her immigration status won’t let her.

With the immediate threat of her husband behind her (she has two protective orders out against him and says that helps her feels safe), Jane is still trapped in a holding pattern. She’s settled into her routine at the shelter, but knows that for undocumented families like hers—when a kid and a parent lack status and have just fled a violent home—the kind of sanctuary being touted in progressive cities across the country isn’t enough. The cops didn’t ask Jane about her immigration status when they arrived at her apartment that night. Neither did the staff treating her at the hospital.

But more than a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about her papers, Jane needs some fundamental things—affordable housing, health care, a living wage—that the current system can’t provide her precisely because she and her son are undocumented. She wants to imagine a life outside the emergency shelter, but right now the future is unclear.

Mostly, she is anxious. “I am not sure what will happen next,” she says.

On the morning we meet, Jane has just been notified that the city rejected her application for food and housing assistance. Undocumented parents with kids who are US citizens are eligible to apply for programs like SNAP and emergency housing through the New York City Housing authority, but Jane’s son is undocumented, too.

And while she’s meeting every week with a caseworker to figure out if the green card application filed through her estranged husband will go through, or if she will have to apply for a visa through the Violence Against Women Act, she remains cut off from basic public assistance until she or her son can get some kind of status.

Which leaves her navigating an ad-hoc system and facing down the daily question of how to care for herself and her kid now that her life has been uprooted and she’s been shut out of even our threadbare safety net. The complications bleed into one another.

Without food stamps, Jane relies on the shelter’s pantry and food banks around the city. This has helped her keep meals on the table, but it remains a system plagued by shortages and straining under increases in demand.

Jane also can’t work legally for the same reasons; she can’t afford an apartment on her own and can’t move out of the emergency shelter until Safe Horizon places her in longer-term housing for families. And it’s still unclear if that will happen, or how long it could take.

According to a 2015 survey that tracked 99 domestic violence programs in New York City across a single day, 3,711 victims—2,109 children and 1,602 adults—were housed in either emergency shelters or transitional housing offered through local organizations like Safe Horizon. In that same day, 956 requests for services went unmet, 61% of them for housing.

In the same survey, 39% of programs reported cuts in government funding. Nearly 1 in 5 reported staff cuts or reductions. These are real, material challenges to helping victims start over once they flee an abusive situation. And there’s a looming threat that things will get worse under the Trump administration, leaving an already overburdened system struggling to do more with less.

“Because at the end of the day, if you have a child and you can’t afford their formula, their diapers, their clothes, what are you going to do?”

The budget proposal released last month by the White House included sweeping cuts to domestic programs that help fund emergency support for Jane and families like hers. The $6 billion in proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development would mean less money for affordable housing programs. Additional cuts to the Legal Services Corporation mean that low-income victims of domestic violence would have greater difficulty accessing the kinds of legal resources necessary to pursue a custody case against an abusive partner or seek assistance with immigration.

“Where we started from wasn’t enough, and that’s before everything escalated under this administration,” Shani Adess, the senior supervising attorney for Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project, tells me. “We had come a long way in terms of improving the system to more effectively respond to people’s needs. Now we are at risk of losing the things we had fought for. They’re taking them away.”

And that kind of instability means tangible danger for domestic violence victims. “If you don’t have a safety net in place when you are fleeing a violent situation, it makes it more likely that you will return to an unsafe environment because of basic needs and necessities,” Adess continues. “Because at the end of the day, if you have a child and you can’t afford their formula, their diapers, their clothes, what are you going to do?”

All this is compounded by the climate of fear being created by the Trump administration. A draft executive order circulated in late January floated the idea of targeting immigrants who legally use social services for deportation. It proposed creating standards for “determining whether an alien is deportable … for having become a public charge within five years of entry,” meaning, as The Washington Post reported at the time, that they received “a certain amount of public assistance, including food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Medicaid.”

These are precisely the kinds of programs that help low-income families survive. Speculation about this kind of targeting has caught up with Jane, too. She only asked me to stop recording once in the course of multiple interviews, when she started talking about applying for benefits.

She was scared that the story wouldn’t be anonymous enough, and that needing help would hurt her immigration case. (She later said I could include what we discussed in the piece.)

“I want to work and raise my baby by myself,” she insisted. “I want to get a job, two jobs, everything I need for the baby and myself. I want to be independent.”

That Jane turned to the emergency response system in the first place is significant. She called the police just before the election, but a lot has changed since then. In Los Angeles, reports of domestic violence have dropped by 10% in the Latinx community compared to the same time period last year, and city police have attributed the decrease to recent raids and the Trump administration’s threats around immigration. (Reports of sexual assault have dropped by 25%.)

In Colorado, at least four undocumented women have declined to pursue domestic violence cases against their alleged abusers for fear of being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to a report from NPR. In New York, ICE agents arrested a man who had shown up at family court in Brooklyn.

“There is a lot of anxiety about raids right now,” Adess says. “And the news coverage, even things that aren’t happening in New York City—people are watching it and becoming incredibly apprehensive. It’s terrifying to think about how many people are going to be left in a situation where they don’t seek help or protection because they are afraid that the system is against them.”

These kinds of arrests aren’t unprecedented, but this administration has been explicit about wanting immigrants to be scared of the system. Jane’s husband wanted that, too. “After we get married he said he was very powerful and he just needed to say a word to ICE and they could decide whether I can stay here,” she tells me.

She thought the uncertainty would end after she left him, but it’s just taken a different shape. A stipend from Safe Horizon has allowed Jane to start taking classes to become a nursing assistant. She wants that to be her first step toward becoming a nurse, she says. But she doesn’t know if or when that will happen.

For now she’s just waiting. “I worry mostly about immigration,” she tells me. “That is what I care about most. For me and the baby. If I can get immigration status, I can feel more safe. I can go work and make money and pay for everything. We don’t have to rely on anyone.”

*Story has been updated to clarify that Jane’s husband is a U.S. citizen and her son is from a previous relationship.

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