Do U.S. Laws Protecting Abuse Survivors Help Only Women Who Are U.S. Citizens?

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger.

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger. Chad Zuber / Shutterstock.com

After graduating from college in Mexico, Gina was raped by a man. Her rapist was never arrested, but she was held by the police for “defamation” after reporting the crime. Gina had no support from her family and upon her release, she was unable to find work in Mexico. At 28, she made the difficult decision to uproot the only life she knew to come to the United States.

“I decided to come here to find my ‘American dream,’ but it turned into a nightmare when I attempted to cross the border,” Gina said, referring to U.S. immigration policies that have made seeking help as an undocumented survivor of violence a “difficult, painful process.”

The United Nations General Assembly has designated November 25 as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—violence that afflicts 70 percent of women in their lifetime, with one in three women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger.

The United States has taken a strong stance over the years in response to violence against women. September of 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and last year during October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, President Obama committed to “reaching a future free of domestic violence.”

Initially, undocumented women experiencing violence were not protected under VAWA. After a long legal battle, however, VAWA was extended in 2013 to include undocumented women. But VAWA is helpful only if the victim of domestic violence is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. According to the Department of Homeland Security, if you are abused by a citizen or permanent resident, you may be eligible to apply for a green card without needing the abuser to file for immigration benefits. Also, a paper trail must exist and victims must establish they have or had a qualifying relationship with the abuser spouse or are the parent or child of the abuser; reside or resided with the abuser; “have good moral character”; and have been victims of battery or extreme cruelty.

Forty-eight percent of Latinas report their partner’s violence against them increases upon immigrating to the United States, according to Cristina Aguilar, executive director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR). These are the many women not protected by laws like VAWA. For this, and many other reasons, women like Gina are becoming their own advocates, joining grassroots organizations like COLOR to work directly in their communities and educate women about their rights, including their ability to obtain U-Visas if they or their children are experiencing violence. U-Visas are for victims of crimes (and their immediate family members) who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.

The work of women like Gina is crucial because for the estimated five million undocumented women in the United States, the fear of deportation or incarceration is real and navigating the system as an abuse survivor only compounds those fears.

We Belong Together, a campaign to “mobilize women in support of common sense immigration policies that will keep families together and empower women,” has conducted extensive research on the many ways immigration policies make an already vulnerable populationundocumented women—more susceptible to violence, abuse, and exploitation. An entire economy has been created from jailing asylum-seeking women and their infants and toddlers, most of whom have experienced gender-based violence.

Furthermore, as history shows us, undocumented women can face prolonged incarceration and deportation for contacting police to report abuse in their homes. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested Maria Calderon after she asked the Tucson police for help because her husband was beating her again. When a neighbor called the police after a domestic dispute in her home turned physical, Claudia Valdez was arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to deportation proceedings. When she escaped an abusive relationship with her daughter, Nan-Hui Jo was arrested and held without bail for nine months and then detained by ICE and subject to deportation proceedings.

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said, stories such as these teach undocumented women not to contact the authorities even during dire situations.

Undocumented women in the United States also can become tethered to abusive partners because of employment visas. Only a quarter of all employment visas are given to women as principal holders, according to We Belong Together, which means that most immigrant women in the employment visa category are dependents on their spouse’s visa, with no authorization to work themselves, making them more vulnerable to an abusive partner.

“This is even a greater threat when there are children involved, because the abusers take advantage of the lack of documentation to inflict violence and threaten to take away our children,” Gina said. “This and many other reasons are why undocumented women are a thousand times more vulnerable to living in violent situation and not reporting them.”

Karina Alonso, a 43-year-old undocumented mother of two, shared similar sentiments with Rewire. Alonso immigrated to Denver, Colorado, with her young son in tow, wanting to raise her child with her husband. Growing up in an abusive home, she recognized the signs in her own marriage. After suffering years of emotional and psychological abuse, Alonso asked her husband for a divorce.

“My husband grabbed a knife and put in on his chest, saying that if I wanted a separation, he would kill himself,” Alonso said.

When things got worse and her husband began stalking her and threatening to “destroy” her, Alonso said she was afraid to ask for help or approach a police officer because of her citizenship status. Above all else, she feared being separated from her children.

“We are afraid our husbands will get more violent if we report the violence,” Alonso said. “In my case, he was also saying that he will make me to go to jail or get deported if I wanted to divorce.”

Stories like Alonso’s are sadly common, explained Aguilar. The executive director said immigrant women might feel that they cannot leave a violent relationship because of immigration laws, language barriers, social isolation, and lack of financial resources.

“Too often immigrant and undocumented women and our families have been scared into silence. The issues of domestic and sexual violence are already shrouded in shame and secrecy. It is that much worse for women who feel isolated and scared to seek help from the authorities, because they fear being separated from their families,” Aguilar said.

Undocumented women also carry the burden of the deportation of men. According to findings from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 93 percent of ICE deportees were men in fiscal year 2013. When the head of their household gets deported, women are left as sole providers for their families, often working in the informal economy as domestic workers or caregivers. Given that a central tenet for comprehensive immigration reform has been employment—employment in specific fields or proof of employment—We Belong Together reports that a pathway to citizenship requiring proof of employment would exclude millions of women. A survey of over 4,000 low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that workers in occupations with high percentages of women did not receive pay stubs with their pay, including 98 percent of surveyed undocumented nannies, 92 percent of maids and housecleaners, and 77 percent of garment workers.

When violence against women is discussed in the United States, advocates say that immigrant and undocumented women are rarely included in those conversations. Gina said that part of the reason accessing care can be so challenging is because many advocacy groups don’t have a basic understanding of the hurdles undocumented women face.

“I think that still there is a lot work to do. I can see ads in the TV, radio, or the media [about abuse], but they’re distant to me,” Alonso said.

Gina added, “They always ask you, ‘Why don’t you call the police? Why don’t you report your husband if he hit you?’ The answer is very simple: Because I am afraid. Afraid that they might ask me for my papers, afraid that I’ll be accused of being the violent one, afraid of being deported and having my children taken away from me.” 

Also, the importance of culturally and linguistically competent care can’t be overstated, they stated. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at its best, culturally competent care should advance health equity, improve quality, and help eliminate disparities. Aguilar said there are groups providing these services, including Mujeres Latinas en Acción, an organization out of Chicago that works to provide culturally competent services to Latinas. Too many support and service programs working with survivors do not have bilingual shelters or hotlines, though. Court advocate programs may not have an interpreter available, Aguilar added, and even a woman calling 9-1-1 may encounter language barriers.

Gina told Rewire most agencies don’t have a staff that is bicultural or bilingual and for women like her, that is a major problem.

“As a Mexican woman, for example, I was raised in a culture completely different from the culture of an American woman,” she said, “and it is going to be very difficult for a social worker to understand my roots and why it took me so long to report the violence or that I was so afraid of the police investigating my family.”

As Aguilar said, any program that is providing care to survivors should have a sense of the community and the different cultures represented. They should also have contacts for interpreters for people whose first language is not English. Primarily, it’s important that those enlisted to help truly understand the community they are serving.

“We need people who can understand our experiences,” Aguilar said.

“Women who are not immigrants, for the most part, do not understand the immigration system,” Gina said. “A simple phone call to the police or a traffic ticket can put you at risk of deportation.”

This was echoed by Alonso, who told Rewire that not knowing her rights, not knowing the language, not having money to pay for legal assistance, and not having traditional access to the help for victims of domestic violence made her feel like she didn’t know where to start.

“In the community, many good resources exist, the problem is that people don’t know where to go or who to call when violence has been inflicted on them,” Gina said. “The problem resides in that when we are victims of violence, we are afraid of everything and we do not know what to do.”