Travis DA: Witness’ deportation fears stall domestic violence case

3:49 p.m Wednesday, March 8, 2017 Local

The Travis County district attorney’s office is grappling with how to move forward in at least one case in which a victim has stopped cooperating with investigators out of fear that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement will deport her, the American-Statesman has learned.

The case is a felony domestic violence case in which a woman was assaulted recently, an official in the district attorney’s office said.

The development comes less than a week after ICE agents arrested a man inside the Blackwell-Thurman Justice Center, where he had been set to appear for a routine court hearing.

District Attorney Margaret Moore said the ICE field office director for San Antonio, Daniel Bible, has assured her that the agency will not target victims or witnesses in Travis County criminal cases, even if they are found to be living in the country illegally.

But some officials fear that ICE’s recent actions, including a sweep last month that ended with the arrest of 51 people, has eroded trust that had been built up among the immigrant community for years.

“Our office has worked for a long time over many years to try to build up our credibility with the immigrant community,” said Mack Martinez, chief of the domestic violence division at the Travis County attorney’s office. “When someone is arrested in the courthouse, it makes it very difficult for these people to trust that they will be safe if they make an outcry of abuse.”

Martinez said the county attorney’s office, which prosecutes the bulk of family violence cases in Austin, is monitoring whether ICE actions have affected any of their cases.

“It is too early to tell if there is a chilling effect,” Martinez said. “We are concerned that there may be hesitance on the part of victims and witnesses to come forward if those individuals are undocumented aliens.”

Victoria Berryhill, a spokeswoman for SAFE, which aims to end violence and abuse in the Austin area, said fear of deportation has kept some victims from seeking the group’s services. SAFE operates a shelter for victims of child abuse and domestic violence as well as offering counseling and other services.

“People are scared,” Berryhill said. “We are seeing people afraid to come into shelter, which decreases their safety. They are staying in an unsafe environment.”

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