When she sought help after five years of domestic violence, Maria Portugal thought she would finally be safe.
She applied for a U Visa, designed to protect victims of violent crimes, and waited. On July 9, three years into her visa application, Portugal received a call from her lawyer. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) want her to provide information about her estranged ex-husband, who they’re tracking, and they may deport her if she doesn’t.
Portugal and Alysha Ferreyra, whose ex-husband Franco has been facing deportation since he was detained in June, told their stories to almost 100 people at a press conference at Madison Christian Community on Tuesday night. Backed by banners reading “No papers, no fear, dignity is here,” “Keep families together” and “We are all Wisconsin,” various activists asked the crowd to support asylum efforts and demanded that ICE stop threatening the two families with separation.
After Portugal and Ferreyra told their stories, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of immigrant and worker rights group Voces de la Frontera, asked attendees to call on their representatives, especially U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, to support an end to local law enforcement collaboration with ICE.
She also made an appeal to ICE regional director Ricardo Wong, calling for him to meet with activists, stop pursuing Portugal and expedite her visa application.
“We need assurances from Wong that he’s not going to be using a survivor of domestic violence as a hostage for someone who they want to pursue,” Neumann-Ortiz said in an interview.
Neumann-Ortiz and other activists praised Portugal for speaking publicly about her situation, which Neumann-Ortiz said is an unconstitutional attack. To end such practices, she said, Madison residents need to be aware of the various kinds of “torture” that immigrants threatened with deportation are subject to.
“It’s really the kind of tactics you see in a cartel strategy,” she said. “That these tactics stop depends on us bringing them to light.”
Veronica Figueroa, executive director of UNIDOS, the domestic violence relief organization that Portugal turned to five years ago, said she’s worried that Portugal’s situation will further discourage other victims of violent crimes from seeking help.
Almost 95 percent of UNIDOS’ clients lack documentation, Figueroa said, so persuading them to speak up is hard, but she can usually explain to them that they won’t be targeted for deportation if they apply for a U Visa.
Portugal’s case is the first she’s heard where a U Visa applicant has been targeted. Now more than ever, she’s worried that victims won’t come forward for fear that they will be treated like Portugal.