Immigrant victims of domestic violence – whether documented or undocumented – face a number of barriers when seeking safety and justice. Unfortunately, current policies often drive victims further into the shadows.
Many immigrant victims experience an increased risk of violence in the home and exploitation in the workplace. Abusive partners or other abusers often exploit a victim’s lack of immigration status, or dependent immigration status, as a way to maintain power and control, and to keep victims silent. Immigrant victims are frequently threatened with deportation by their abusers, increasing their reluctance to seek help from the authorities or services. This ongoing threat of deportation, whether from the abuser or because of federal immigration policies, also means that many victims are at an increased risk of being separated from their children, which also makes it less likely that they will seek help. When immigrant victims or witnesses reporting crimes fail to report or distrust the criminal justice system, this empowers abusers and perpetrators, contravenes existing protections afforded by law, undermines access to justice through the police and courts, creates extreme fear for immigrant families and communities, and undermines public safety.
In addition, language and cultural barriers may make it difficult for some immigrant victims to understand their rights, access services, and work with law enforcement. Furthermore, some service providers may not have the capacity to provide linguistically and culturally appropriate services.
Impact of the Immigration Executive Orders and Increased Enforcement
Increased enforcement activity with overboard enforcement priorities has created a climate of fear among victims in immigrant communities and heightened the barriers for them to seek help. Numerous reports from police chiefs and prosecutors have shown significant reductions in the reporting of domestic violence and sexual assault. A recent survey, designed and distributed by seven national organizations working to end domestic violence and sexual assault, and answered by over 700 victim advocates and attorneys across the country, found:
- 78 percent of advocates reported that immigrant survivors expressed concerns about contacting the police;
- 75 percent of service providers reported that immigrant survivors have concerns about going to court for a matter related to the abuser/offender; and
- 43 percent of advocates worked with immigrant survivors who dropped civil or criminal cases because of fear.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has taken steps to improve assistance to and services for immigrant victims of domestic violence, in particular by providing options for victims to obtain lawful status in the United States without having to rely on abusers.
- VAWA’s self-petition process permits immigrant victims who are abused by a spouse or family member who is a US citizen or legal permanent resident to apply for lawful status on her/his own, without needing to be sponsored by the abuser
- U visas can provide lawful status to victims of certain crimes (including domestic violence) who are assisting or are willing to assist law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. Currently, however, there is a cap on the number of U visas that can be issued every year – and the number of visas available is inadequate to support the need for immigrant victims of violence.
Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which is currently being debated in Congress, would provide much-needed protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence and would substantially reduce the vulnerability to abuse and exploitation of millions of immigrant women. Comprehensive immigration reform is needed to:
- Strengthen existing protections for immigrant survivors by increasing the number of U visas available annually and including child abuse and elder abuse as U visa qualifying crimes
- Support survivor self-sufficiency and remove vulnerabilities to further victimization by providing a pathway to legal status and work authorization, as well as by improving survivors’ access to critical safety net benefits
- Safeguard abused dependent spouses and children by ensuring that they can independently petition for legal status
- Ensure that organization supporting survivors of violence, such as churches and shelters, are not criminally penalized for or discouraged from assisting vulnerable undocumented immigrants
- Encourage immigrant survivors to come forward without fear of retaliation by disentangling local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement