An advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline center's facility in Austin, Texas. On Monday the nation’s most prominent domestic violence hotline said there has been a sharp increase in calls from abuse victims struggling with issues related to their immigration status. Credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

It’s a basic lesson in civics that while the operations of government may seem remote, the effects of its policies will eventually be felt by everybody, including the most vulnerable populations who have the least power to change anything. This has become abundantly clear over the past few months as the federal government’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants has made undocumented victims of domestic violence afraid to press charges against their abusers, and as the Illinois state government’s failure to come up with a budget for nearly two years running has cut funding and services to help those victims.

In the thick of these problems is Chicago’s Domestic Violence Legal Clinic, which provides free legal assistance to low-income residents of Cook County. Executive director Margaret Duval took some time to explain to me the new challenges facing victims—and their advocates—in advance of the group’s benefit, which takes place Thursday.

I’ve been hearing that people are now afraid to report domestic violence because of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Is that true?

Margaret Duval
Margaret DuvalCredit: Domestic Violence Legal Clinic

I haven’t seen ICE enforcement in the courthouse. That’s not because Chicago is a sanctuary city. Being a sanctuary city is not going to help us. That makes us more of a target for ICE. Law enforcement won’t cooperate with ICE, but they can’t stop them from coming into the courts and looking at the names on the docket. It’s a public place. Our undocumented clients are afraid to come to court. And we have a lack of ability to guarantee that there won’t be any interference from ICE. I’ve noticed a decrease in the number of filings for an order of protection in the Latina community. I have no numbers to support that. But it’s early days.

What can you do to address this?

What we can do is make folks feel comfortable coming to the courthouse. There’s a real tension between acting affirmatively and raising an alarm unnecessarily. We don’t want to make our clients more afraid. Nothing has happened yet, but there’s no assurance that it won’t. Our clients are concerned for themselves—and also the opposing parties. Wanting someone to stop hitting you is not the same as wanting someone deported. But because there’s a sharper penalty, it’s a higher risk to report someone. People used to rely on not being retaliated against. This makes me feel like I’ve been incredibly naive [for not realizing this].

There are small, tangible things that make it more difficult to interact with the justice system, and there are small, tangible things to make it easier. For instance, there’s a sign at the courthouse that says “No cell phones allowed.” But they are allowed. And it makes litigants’ lives more difficult, because they think they have to leave their phones at home or find someone to hold it for them. But what if there was a sign that advises people of their rights? Or ways that we could look at dockets that are less public? Nobody I’ve talked to is aware that there have been conversations about these things.

What’s going on with the state?

The state of Illinois is not giving us any money. An allotment for domestic violence services was left out of the budget for fiscal year 2017. Last year there was $18.6 million for domestic violence services in Illinois. This year, domestic violence services were not included at all. We have contracts with the state that we have to provide services.

How are you keeping the lights on?

We’re surviving because we raised money from donors. That’s why our benefit is more important this year. But it’s worse for people in rural areas. Here we have the law-firm community and the legal foundations, which have been very supportive. It’s a disheartening situation.

Especially with this new health-care bill.

How is domestic violence a preexisting condition? For me, it’s fascinating. The president is coming in as an ally of sexual assault. For someone more cautious, they’d project the image of being pro-woman. This is the opposite of what you’d expect.

Is there any good news?

Well, in my lifetime, there’s never been a better time to be a lawyer.

During the travel ban protests at O’Hare, people were yelling “Thank you, lawyers!” The lawyers said they’d never been cheered before.

There’s a picture in our office of the Statue of Liberty protected by Justice with her scales. That’s what I think is standing between us and the red cloaks [from The Handmaid’s Tale]: lawyers and the media. In the presidential administration, it’s the lawyers who are stopping overreaches.

This is also forcing my sector to look at where problems in our clients’ lives intersect. Guardianship, immigration, domestic violence, they’re all in the same room. It’s been possible now to make conversations happen.

Domestic Violence Legal Clinic’s 2017 Annual Benefit Thursday May 11, 6-9 PM, the Casino, 195 E. Delaware, 312-325-9155, $125, $75 for students and nonprofit professionals.