The Number of Immigrant Women Who Were Victims of Domestic Violence Increased During the Pandemic

This article was produced as a project for the 2021 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund at USC's Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

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[Click Here For Spanish Version]

Many undocumented women were already vulnerable to domestic violence due to their immigration status, their lack of English skills and being unprepared to take care of themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic made the problem worse.

A survey of 374 adults conducted by the University of California, Davis, found that the extra stress brought on by unemployment, inability to pay rent and food, as well as the isolation impeded victims and aggressors from separating from each other.

“Compounding these stressors, women fleeing abusive partners have no place to go with shelters also locked down,” said Clare Cannon, assistant professor of social and environmental justice and lead author of “COVID-19, Intimate Partner Violence and Communication Ecologies,” published in American Behavioral Scientist.

Calls made to the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council Hotline corroborate this hypothesis

In 2020, the hotline registered 9,507 calls, a 43% rise from the 5,401 calls received in 2019.

“The lockdown worsened a situation where there were already problems,” said a Guatemalan who in 2019 founded Mujeres de Hoy, a nonprofit group based in the San Fernando Valley that helps these victims, mostly undocumented. “When the man goes to work or the woman goes to pick up the children, there are not a lot of problems as when they are together.”

Then there was the issue of where they could go.

“The shelters are saturated by the homeless. Rents are so high. They have no money. Where are they going to go?,” Todd says.

A Daily Struggle

Every day, Todd’s cell phone rings at least five to seven times from someone seeking help. It may be a woman whose husband repeatedly tells her she’s worse than trash, another whose partner hits her every weekend after he comes home drunk, or yet another who is threatened with deportation and separation from her children.

The callers may come from different countries and have different ages, but there is a common denominator among them: almost all are undocumented immigrants who are also victims of domestic violence.

“In the United States, one out of every four women are victims of domestic violence. But for undocumented immigrants, it’s much worse,” says Todd, who was also a victim of domestic violence herself.

“My arms were bruised, my eyes were red, filled with blood,” she says of when she escaped with her small son and went to sleep outside a 7-Eleven.

“I healed my own wounds. I have to be strong and help others heal theirs,” Todd says.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) estimates abuse rates among immigrant women can reach as high as 50 percent. Their lack of English, cultural and social barriers, and—most importantly—immigration status makes them especially vulnerable.

“Many women who lack (immigration) documents won’t report their abuser because they don’t have anywhere to go,” Todd says. “Others keep quiet because of the fear of what people might say, like ‘what are they going to think of me?’ and they also fear getting deported if they go to the police. They feel as if all the doors close on them. They can’t find a solution.”

Treated ‘worse than a dog’

For 24 years, “Rosa,” a 41-year-old Mexican who did not want to reveal her name, was married to a husband 20 years her senior who beat her, belittled her and made her feel “worse than a dog,” she says.

She was 15-years-old when the man who would become her husband visited her small town in the state of Jalisco and swept her off her feet. He lived in the U.S. and her family thought he could provide her with a life and opportunities she could never have at home.

They married in Mexico and lived there for a while. The abuse began the same day of their marriage.

“I made him dinner and when I served it, he threw it away and said he didn’t like it,” Rosa remembers.

Some years later, he returned to the U.S. and left her there with her first son, visiting her every few months. She was four months pregnant with her daughter when her husband told her to get ready one night because they would be leaving for the U.S. the next day. He did not give her time to say goodbye to her family.

She crossed the border illegally and the dreams she had of all the nice things people talked about in the U.S. turned into a nightmare upon her arrival.

“I never went out. He would buy everything for me, even my underwear. He never took me to the doctor. He would just tell me ‘go this way and ask someone,’” Rosa says.

She didn’t speak any English and she’s also illiterate in Spanish, so Rosa was completely unable to follow street names or signs of any kind.

They lived with her husband’s family and they did not treat her any better.

“They would not give me any food,” she said, adding that for several months they also slept on the floor.

Her husband also had a short temper and anything that upset him turned into a shove, a push, name calling and or a slap. After her daughter was born, her husband never again slept with her, telling her “she smelled.”

Years later she also found out he had a separate family.

Rosa eventually had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide by ingesting pills. She didn’t tell the doctors the true reason for the suicide attempt.

“When I was released from the hospital, he told me ‘you know I can put you away any time I want.’ That scared me,” she said.

At age 11, her daughter told a teacher at her school what happened in the house and police were called.

Rosa was taken to the police station. 

“I didn’t know what was happening. I thought they were going to take my daughter away,” she remembers. The officer assured her everything would be OK.

But everything was not OK. She did not want to return home to her husband but she had no money and nowhere to go. Another mom from her daughter’s school let her stay in a small mobile home on her property and slowly Rosa began to get her life in order. Her son stayed with his father.

In an ironic twist of fate the day after her divorce was finalized, her husband told her he had cancer and only four months to live. Rosa would take care of him until his death. Only then did she confront him for everything he had done to her, but he never apologized.

Three years after his death, Rosa is still depressed and attends therapy. She has secured a U-Visa for victims of domestic violence, which helped her get a job permit.

She says many people have helped her along the way.

 “I tell people there are open doors, you just have to look for them,” Rosa says.

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund


National Domestic Violence Hotline

1 (800) 799-7233

Mujeres de Hoy

(818) 423-6397

[This story was originally published by Excélsior California.]

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