Immigration and Domestic Abuse – The Challenges Immigrants Face

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the already challenging task immigrant victims of domestic abuse have to access support and resources in many communities. This pandemic has left many in the immigrant community suffering in silence because of the compounded fear of certain systems, lack of language access, and other cultural barriers.

There have been times in our history that have been harder than others for immigrants in our country due to policy, law, and prevailing attitudes. Now is one of those times, when immigrant victims of domestic violence are facing even more challenges.

There are three prominent priority areas in US immigration law: family reunification, employment-based immigration, and humanitarian relief.  While there is a complicated myriad of laws and categories, there are two simple truths to our current system: 

  1.  No matter the category, demand for available visas or green cards far outnumbers supply. 
  2.  For many, there is no line.

For example, for intending immigrants from Mexico who are married sons and daughters of United States citizens and their parents started the process to apply for them in September of 1996, a green card is just now available to them. Or, if a Dairy Farmer is looking to hire foreign workers to help milk cows and maintain his farm, there is no visa category available to him because the work on his farm is not “temporary or seasonal” — cows need to be milked multiple times a day, every day of the year. Our humanitarian relief opportunities, though well-intentioned, are in no better shape. Whether the United States offers humanitarian protection to an individual often depends on the relationship we have with their home country. And these categories are even more at the whim of the current administration in the White House.

With a complicated and constrictive immigration system come many risks and rewards for intending immigrants. For many, the opportunity to immigrate to the United States, whether through official channels or not, is a ticket to freedom. For others, issues related to immigration status actually impede their independence and become a tool of control over them. This issue comes up in different circumstances for immigrant victims of domestic violence. For example, the spouse of a foreign worker who comes here to work in a specialty occupation, say as a doctor or engineer, may join their spouse, but they are not eligible to work. So, an abusive spouse who happens to be the “primary immigrant” has an opportunity to further isolate them and control their actions. Additionally, in “mixed-status households,” where one partner holds a green card or US citizenship and the other spouse does not, the threat that an abusive partner will cause their partner to be deported or will call ICE is a very effective method of control. Finally, because of a fear of law enforcement that permeates the immigrant community for various reasons, immigrant victims of domestic violence are often extremely hesitant to reach out for help.

There are forms of relief for immigrant victims of domestic violence built into our immigration system. These laws and policies are a lifeline for many, but like other parts of the system, they are broken and insufficient, and many victims simply do not fit into the specified categories. Provisions in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allow immigrant victims to apply for a green card if they are battered or subjected to extreme cruelty at the hands of their US Citizen or Permanent Resident spouse. Also because of VAWA, domestic violence victims are allowed to self-petition to lift conditions on their permanent residence if they are the victim of domestic violence (usually this requires a joint petition to show “good faith” and continuing marriage).  Additionally, a very limited number of U Visas are allotted for immigrant victims of domestic violence (and other specified crimes) who cooperate with law enforcement.

“My hubby and I married in India in October 2019 and in November 2019 I arrived in the United States. My husband is here on a H1-B visa (specialty work visa). I’m on a H4 visa (dependent visa). I was abused verbally almost every day, hit by my husband at least once a week on my head, hair was pulled, he tried to choke me with his foot on my throat, kicked with his legs, dragged me to the floor, held my jaw – my teeth and gums became weak because I bleed everyday since then… I am currently waiting for my change of status (to a student visa) eagerly, because it would be my achievement to live independently and earn for myself.” 

To summarize, life as an immigrant in the United States always has had its challenges, but there are many unique obstacles that immigrant victims of domestic abuse face: 

  • Unfamiliar with the systems that are built to assist them 
  • Fear to interact with these systems due to lack of confidence in the system or anxiety over immigration status 
  • Getting threats from their partner about being deported or turned over to immigration 
  • Language barriers
  • Lack of accurate information about protections that they may have as a victim of crime or domestic abuse 
  •  A number of specific cultural or religious barriers that keep certain communities from seeking help 

Although work is being done to reach all communities, overall there needs to be more culturally and linguistically appropriate resources available to build confidence and remove barriers to accessing services. 

We know that immigrant victims of domestic violence may often feel completely helpless; that there is no way out of their situation. Here at Harbor House, we will often help immigrant victims take their first steps to independence, just like any other domestic violence survivor.  Through relationship building, outreach, and advocacy, shelter staff can work with community partners to explore different immigration options and paths to protection. Even though the path may be longer, the risks higher, the legal protections fewer, and the challenges more serious for immigrant victims of domestic violence, caring advocates can, and do, make it possible for many immigrants to escape domestic violence.

If you are an immigrant who is seeking a safe place or is seeking support, please reach out to us at 920-832-1667. All of our services are 100% free and confidential.


This blog post was written with contributions by:

Molly Smiltneek, Immigration Attorney

Michelle Ruhl-Ortiz, Harbor House Adult Advocate