NEW YORK (AP) - The nation's most prominent domestic violence hotline reports a sharp increase in calls from abuse victims struggling with issues related to their immigration status.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, established by Congress in 1996 and partly reliant on federal funding, says in its newly released annual report that it responded to 323,660 phone calls, texts and online contacts in 2016. Of these calls, 7,053 evoked immigration-related issues - up nearly 30 percent from 2015.
Katie Ray-Jones, the hotline's CEO, said many of the callers were not U.S. citizens and were warned by their abusers that they and their families would be deported if the abuse was reported to the police. In some cases, she said, the abusers had threatened to call federal immigration authorities.
Ray-Jones said the surge in immigration-related calls became noticeable in mid-2016 at a time when Donald Trump was clinching the Republican presidential nomination and the GOP platform was echoing his calls for tough enforcement of immigration laws.
One worrisome development, Ray-Jones said, is that relatives, friends and neighbors of immigrant abuse victims who might have reported abuse in the past are now wary of doing so for fear they might be targeted for deportation.
In the current environment, hotline staffers find it challenging to respond to some of the calls, Ray-Jones said.
"We're not in a place where we can say, 'Oh, don't worry. That's not going to happen,'" she said.
She said hotline staffers still encourage victims to seek refuge at domestic violence shelters, even though some victims fear such facilities might be targeted by immigration authorities. "We've yet to hear of a story of a shelter being raided," Ray-Jones said.
Release of the new hotline data comes amid widening debate over how federal immigration policies are affecting domestic violence.
Many activists engaged in immigration and domestic violence issues were outraged when a transgender woman was arrested on an immigration charge in February by federal agents in an El Paso, Texas, courthouse as she obtained a protective order against an abusive boyfriend.
Since then, officials in several cities, including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, have expressed concern that some domestic violence victims might not report the abuse or come to court out of fear of arrest and deportation.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said it made sense that immigration-related calls to the hotline, which allows callers to remain anonymous, would increase during this period.
"It's no surprise that's someone who's being abused, but fears deportation if she calls the police, would reach out to the national hotline to try to find out if she has any other options," Gandy said.
Gandy said some abusers were warning that their victims would be deported, while their children, if U.S. citizens, would remain in the U.S. and might themselves be at risk of abuse.
"It's about the worst threat you can make to someone," said Gandy.
In April, the Homeland Security Department said it can't promise that immigrants in the U.S. illegally won't be arrested if they come forward to report they have been a victim of a crime or a witness to one. However, department spokesman David Lapan said there are special visas for immigrants in the country illegally who are victims of certain crimes, including domestic violence.
In addition to the data on immigration-related calls, the domestic violence hotline said there was an increase of more than 40 percent from 2015 to 2016 in calls reporting the actual or threatened use of firearms.
Ray-Jones cited two factors that might be behind this: new policies encouraging hotline staffers to ask about firearms and the extensive news coverage of gun violence that might lead more abuse victims to be fearful of suffering from it.
The hotline operates toll-free numbers around the clock, seven days a week and offers interpreters fluent in more than 200 languages. The hotline reported that more than 8,800 of the callers in 2016 were non-English speakers.