October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it is extremely important to talk about how the most marginalized of us often suffer abuse in silence. Despite the current administration’s endeavors to restrict, imprison, and deport immigrants, there are still laws in place to protect immigrants who are subject to abuse and violence, no matter their status.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) states that “all people in the United States (regardless of race, color, religion, sex, age, ethnicity, national origin or immigration status) are guaranteed protection from abuse under the law. Any victim of domestic violence – regardless of immigration or citizenship status – can seek help.” Sadly, however, the reality is that many immigrants living with abuse will continue to suffer in silence and remain with their abuser out of fear of being deported.
Immigrants may feel defenseless and particularly vulnerable in the face of abuse because they may not speak English, may not have a support system or family nearby to help them, and may simply just not know or understand US rights and laws. Their abusers may use their immigration status against them as a form of abuse, and the fear of deportation and possibly losing custody of children often overrides the fear of continuing to live with an abuser. Victims may also not know how or where to reach out for help, how to access domestic violence shelters, and how to request an interpreter if needed.
Immigrants make up 13% of the US population; around 76% of them have legal status of some form, and 24% are undocumented. It is estimated that 1 in 4 women will be victims of domestic violence in their lives; however, only 1 in 4 of those cases will be reported to the authorities. Domestic abuse cases are notoriously underreported so it is therefore easy to imagine that a more vulnerable portion of the population, such as immigrants, may be even more reluctant to report abuse and violence.
US immigration laws are very difficult to navigate, and often subject to change, which gives abusers many ways to control their victims. Abuse is not always physical, and certain forms of emotional and verbal abuse are not always easy to detect or describe, but can also cause significant distress and harm to the person being abused. There are several specific patterns of abuse that abusers will use to control and silence immigrant victims, in addition to other forms of abuse and control that are universal to both immigrants and non-immigrants:
Threats: while the threat of arrest and deportation is a big one, abusers may also use scare tactics such as threatening to withdraw an immigration petition, being granted full custody of children, or even the threat of harming the children of the abused.
Isolation: an abuser may make it very difficult for their victim to learn English, make friends within the community, have access to education, a phone and/or the internet, and may also limit contact with family in their home country.
Intimidation: an abuser may withhold information on immigration rights, and withhold or destroy legal documents such as passports, birth certificates, green cards, and social security numbers. Without these important documents an immigrant will not be able to open a bank account, go to school, or find a job, all of which would help them to become independent.
Economic abuse: an abuser may decide to withhold finances or not make them accessible to the victim, and cause them to lose their job by calling their employer to report they are undocumented (even if they are not).
Manipulation: an abuser may use the victim’s immigration status and sparse knowledge of federal laws to manipulate them.
If any of these abuse patterns are familiar to you, whether you are currently in an abusive situation or you know someone who is, it is important to know that you can seek help and that you have rights. Over the past year there has been a decline in reported domestic abuse cases amongst immigrants, mainly due to certain immigration changes, and the fear of immigrants’ statuses being revoked if they go to the police. Teens and young adults who worry that their DACA status will not be renewed may also not be so willing to report abuse out of fear of being marked for removal. Whether you are an immigrant married to or in a relationship with a citizen, a permanent resident or another immigrant, and whether you are undocumented or not, there are laws in place to protect you and punish your perpetrator. These same laws are in place for immigrant children who are suffering from abuse at the hands of a family member or other. Your rights are the same no matter your immigration status or relationship to your abuser.
Immigrants who are living with abuse and looking for a safe exit strategy can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for access to local resources such as shelters and advocates, as well as low-cost or pro bono legal representatives who can help them navigate through any legal immigration proceedings. An advocate can help you go through the process of reporting the abuse, moving to a new home and/or a shelter, and starting a new life free of abuse. It is very important to request a lawyer who specializes in domestic violence cases as well as immigration law. It is also very important to not undertake any immigration proceedings without the help and presence of a lawyer. It is never advisable to file any paperwork yourself without the advice of a lawyer.
If you are the victim of domestic abuse through a US citizen or legal permanent resident, and married, or directly related to this person, you may be eligible to petition for a VAWA for Abuse Victims (Violence Against Women Act). While the name designates women, it is available to men and women, provided they meet the criteria. If you are an undocumented victim of abuse through a partner (documented or undocumented) you may be eligible for a non-immigrant U visa. If you are a victim of human trafficking you may be eligible for a T-visa. There are laws in place to protect everyone from abuse in the US, no matter what you immigration status may be, and you will not be deported for reporting your abuser.
It is not easy to live in the shadows, especially if those shadows are also shrouded by abuse. Even if immigration laws are constantly changing no one should feel that they cannot leave an abusive relationship, or report their abuser, out of fear of losing everything that they have worked towards in this country.
If you would like more information on how to leave an abusive relationship, please call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to get advice.