Immigrant victims of domestic violence face harrowing ordeals with little help

Published on
July 4, 2021

According to the National Organization for Women (NOW), intimate partner violence impacts one in three women, but that figure rises exponentially among immigrant and undocumented women. Language, cultural and social barriers, as well as immigrant status, make them especially vulnerable to this problem. Abuse rates among immigrant women are as high as 49.8%, according to the National Organization for Women.

Besides physical, sexual and emotional abuse, partners may also use women’s immigration status as a weapon, threatening them with deportation, or refusing to file immigration papers for them or to continue sponsoring them.

Survivors of domestic violence with undocumented status in the United States are subject to legal, linguistic and cultural isolation. Stranded in a new country and sometimes barred from work authorization, they may be unfamiliar with things that other people take for granted, such as opening a bank account, where to look or call for help, and even what their rights are.

And reporting the abuse to the authorities raises fears they may end up deported, as well.

In a 2017 poll, organizations working with domestic violence survivors reported almost 80% of immigrant victims were scared to report their abuse to the police. Three out of four advocates said their immigrant clients had concerns about pursuing their case in court, and almost half said they worked with survivors who dropped civil and criminal cases out of fear.

My project, supported by the Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund for Reporting on Domestic Violence, is a series of three articles that will delve deeper into these subjects and offer statistics and resources where victims of domestic abuse can find help. 

The pieces will also explore how the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of domestic abuse in the undocumented community. How has sheltering in place and social distancing made victims even more vulnerable than before? Some advocates have noted that during the first year of the pandemic, domestic violence hotline calls overall rose, yet reports from Spanish speakers dropped significantly. 

My first story will give a general introduction about the impact COVID-19 had on immigrant women and the victims of domestic violence. I plan to speak with women who can illustrate the problem by sharing their stories, sheddling light on the physical and mental effects of this trauma and what effects lockdowns and COVID-19 had on them.

The second article will focus on the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, the measure allows survivors of domestic violence to gain lawful permanent residence, whether or not they entered the U.S. legally, provided the abuser was a citizen spouse, parent or child, or a lawful permanent resident spouse or parent.

Another benefit they may seek is the U visa, which can be issued to victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse. It lasts for three years, after which the visa holders may apply to become permanent residents.

However, both VAWA and the U visa require survivors to cooperate with law enforcement to investigate the crimes and apprehend perpetrators.

Individuals fleeing domestic violence from overseas could also seek asylum in the U.S., but proving the abuse in a foreign country presents some particular challenges. 

The last story in my series will focus on how shelters shifted strategies during the pandemic to help immigrant women victims of domestic violence.

Most women organize escape or safety plans with support from family members and friends. But immigrant women, who are often removed from family and close friends back in their home country, have dramatically fewer people they can turn to. They also often have low trust in public agencies. Many of their connections are also individuals living in poverty, with limited means of their own. 

Also, in recent years, anti-immigrant sentiment has been so pervasive that many undocumented immigrants retreated further into the shadows and did not seek help or applied for assistance that may be available to them for fear they would be refused help, or worse, targeted for removal because of their immigration status.

Each story will include statistics and resources for undocumented immigrants victims of domestic abuse.