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Written by: Rosie Hidalgo, Senior Director of Public Policy, Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network

Immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking often face additional challenges and barriers when seeking assistance and safety. It is well known that perpetrators of these crimes often exploit a victim’s immigration status as a tool of abuse and control in order to make them too fearful to seek safety and justice. This includes threatening to report survivors to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to have them deported and have their children taken away from them.  Additionally, abusers often take advantage of the situation, particularly if an immigrant survivor has limited English proficiency, to misrepresent the laws and protections afforded to victims in the United States, and to tell them that they do not have any rights.

It is imperative that domestic violence and sexual assault organizations not only ensure access to their services to all survivors, regardless of immigration status, but that they also proactively reach out to immigrant communities to let them know that the services are available to them and that they are welcomed. Otherwise, programs run the risk of sharpening the tools of abusers who take advantage of the increased fear and uncertainty to further exploit and abuse immigrant victims.

A recent survey that was completed by more than 700 advocates and attorneys from around the country revealed heightened uncertainty and fear among immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.[1] Additionally, we have received inquiries from service providers seeking more information about the laws and policies that ensure access to services for undocumented immigrants. As a result, this seems like an opportune time to provide some general guidance on these issues with links to additional resources.

VAWA, and other victim-centered legislation

Since the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, VAWA has always included vital protections for immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Congress recognized that the abusers of immigrant victims often use their victims’ dependent immigration status or lack of immigration status as a tool of abuse, leaving the victim too afraid to seek services or report the abuse to law enforcement.  As a result, Congress created the VAWA self-petition process to assist victims married to abusive spouses who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents and who use their control over the victims’ immigration status to keep them trapped in an abusive situation (e.g., by failing to petition for them and thus intentionally leaving victims without legal immigration status and without legal work authorization).[2] Subsequently, when VAWA was reauthorized in 2000, in conjunction with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), Congress created, in a bipartisan fashion, two additional remedies for immigrant survivors. The U visa was established to assist noncitizen victims of certain eligible crimes (including domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking) who are willing to assist in the investigation or prosecution of a crime.[3] Additionally, the T visa was established to assist victims of human trafficking.

In creating these new remedies for immigrant victims, Congress recognized the importance of fostering cooperation between undocumented victims and law enforcement agencies or other agencies tasked with investigating crimes. Additionally, Congress recognized that providing a pathway to safety for immigrant victims was also in “keeping with the humanitarian interests of the United States.”[4] Special confidentiality provisions were also included in VAWA to protect immigrant survivors.[5] During subsequent reauthorizations of VAWA in 2005 and 2013, Congress continued, in a bipartisan manner, to support and strengthen immigration remedies and confidentiality protections for immigrant survivors.

While these immigration remedies can provide a critical pathway to safety for many immigrant survivors, the reality is that most immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking are unable to learn about their rights and access these protections unless they are able to obtain the assistance of a trained advocate, as well as additional supportive services that are trauma-informed and linguistically accessible.  Therefore, domestic violence and sexual assault service providers play a critical role in providing a life-changing bridge to safety and well-being for immigrant survivors and their children.

To read the rest of this information, including ensuring access to services necessary for the protection of life and safety and discrimination provisions, download the PDF here.

For more information, see our webinar about Safety Planning for Immigrant Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence, Part 1 and Part 2.

[1]  “Key Findings: 2017 Advocate and Legal Service Survey Regarding Immigrant Survivors” available at:http://nationallatinonetwork.org/images/2017%20Advocate%20and%20Legal%20Service%20Survey%20Key%20Findings.pdf

[2]  For a general overview and additional information about the VAWA self-petition and other remedies for immigrant survivors, see the Immigration section of womenslaw.org found at https://www.womenslaw.org/laws/federal/immigration; See also the chart by the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, “Comparing Forms of immigration Relief for Immigrant Victims,” found athttp://library.niwap.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/IMM-Chart-ImmReliefFormsComparison-06.19.12.pdf (updated 2017)

[3] For additional information, see the Department of Homeland Security “U and T Visa Law Enforcement Resource Guide,” found athttps://www.dhs.gov/publication/u-visa-law-enforcement-certification-resource-guide.

[4] Congress stated that the purpose of creating these provisions was to “strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to detect, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking…and other crimes…committed against aliens, while offering protection to victims of such offenses in keeping with the humanitarian interests of the United States.” See section 1513(a)(2)(A), Public Law No: 106-386, 114 Stat. 1464

[5]  More information about VAWA confidentiality provisions for immigrant victims is found here:http://niwaplibrary.wcl.american.edu/vawa-confidentiality-protections-training-materials/

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