Domestic abuse, physical, sexual and/or emotional, affects thousands of women in the United States. Victims who are undocumented immigrants may find that escaping an abusive situation is particularly difficult because they may think that they have no rights, no voice and no way out. But immigrant women who are victims of abuse do have rights and can get help.
Challenges faced by undocumented immigrants who are victims of abuse:
- Isolation: An abuser may limit the victim’s contact with other people, cut off communication with family and friends in her country of origin and prevent her from making new friends. Because an undocumented woman can’t get a job legally, her abuser may easily control the money and may limit her access to food and other resources. She also may not have access to bank accounts.
- Language and cultural barriers: Immigrant women who are abused may not have the opportunity or be allowed to learn to speak, read or write English. This may limit their options for seeking help. It’s also easier for an abuser to lie to a victim who doesn’t speak English about her immigration status to keep her dependent and afraid. In some cultures, physical violence from a husband may be seen as normal.
- Threats: An abuser may threaten to take the children or turn the victim over to authorities for deportation, orintimidate her by destroying her documents.
- Lack of information and fear of authorities: Victims may believe that authorities will not enforce laws to protect undocumented persons and that restraining orders are not available to them. They may think that a police officer can take them to jail or deport them. They also may be under the mistaken impression that services or help are only available if there has been physical violence in the relationship. Abusers may convince their victims that the abuse is not a crime.
Rights of undocumented women who are victims of abuse:
Undocumented women who have suffered domestic abuse should know that abuse is a crime, and that the law will protect their rights regardless of their immigration status. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) gives special protection to abused victims married to an abuser who is a US citizenor permanent resident, so an abused wife can apply for residency, regardless of how she entered the country. Victims who are not married to a US citizen or permanent resident may qualify for a U visa.
What you should know if you are an undocumented woman and your abusive husband is a US citizen or permanent resident:
- You deserve help, and you have a right to all the same services for victims born in the United States. You can call the police, go to a women’s shelter, apply for victim assistance funds and ask for a restraining order. You don’t have to reveal your immigration status to receive these services, and it is very unlikely you’ll be asked. Agencies that give services to crime victims do not require you to be a permanent resident or have a valid visa in order to help you.
- Even if your abuser says that he will get you deported if you call the police or try to get help, it is almost impossible for him to carry out this threat. The immigration authorities don’t act on calls from one individual who reports an undocumented person. And remember that under U.S. federal law, abused immigrant women have the right to leave an abusive husband and apply for a visa or permanent residency on their own. The local women’s shelter can tell you how to do it.
- Ask someone to be with you when you talk to police and other crisis workers. This will help you feel safer and will reduce the chances that officials might treat you badly or ignore your needs, even if your friend doesn’t speak English. If your abuser keeps you isolated, ask for help from neighbors, your minister or priest, or your children’s teachers. You don’t have to tell them everything in order to ask for their help.
IMPORTANT: If the abuser is not your husband and/or he is not a US citizen or permanent resident:
You can follow most of the advice for abused women married to US citizens or permanent residents, but you have to be more careful so you won’t be at risk of being deported:
- First go to a women’s shelter. Agencies that give services to crime victims do not require you to be a permanent resident or have a valid visa in order to help you. They will tell you what steps you should take to escape the abuse in a way that won’t put you at risk of being deported.
- Ask someone to make a phone call to the police for you. This person can call the local police and explain your situation without giving your name, and ask what they will do if you report the abuse and you don’t have legal documents.
If you think you are in danger, call 911 immediately. WomensLaw.org provides tips and information on how to leave your home safely and also answers some questions on immigration issues.
*The information on this article is not legal advice and is not a replacement for the advice of a lawyer.
Article reviewed by Fatma Marouf, Associate Professor of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas