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An Online Resource Library Supporting Professionals Ending Gender-Based Violence.

Immigrant Victims of Domestic Violence: Cultural Challenges and Available Legal Protections

NRCDV Publications
General Material
Published Date
February, 2002

Immigrants to the United States constitute a complex and diverse population of ethnic and national groups with varied backgrounds. Some immigrants have fled difficult situations in their home countries while others have been drawn by economic opportunities. Little attention has been paid to immigrant women who are battered. While no specific estimates exist on their numbers, the issues they face are not only those that affect battered women who are citizens, but also a number of cultural and legal barriers to seeking safety (Narayan, 1995).

  • There are many social and economic factors that create barriers for immigrant battered women. These include dependence on an abusive husband for economic and social support. Even when an extended family network exists, it may explicitly or implicitly support the abusive male's actions toward his victim.
  • The abuser, if he is a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident, typically uses his power to threaten to have the victim deported by reporting her undocumented status to authorities, threatens to revoke residency sponsorship, or refuses to file necessary immigration petitions that would provide the victim with lawful status in the U.S.
  • Immigrant women may also be wary of requesting help from official institutions based on real or imagined experiences with similar institutions in their home country (Erez, 2000). Involvement with such institutions presents the real possibility of their perpetrator or themselves being deported.
  • Intervention services may not be able to meet immigrant women's needs once they overcome the obstacles in making appropriate contact. Institutional barriers include location, professional background of board or staff, and both the ethnicity and language skills of staff (see Keefe & Casas, 1980).

To combat these problems, Congress has enacted special immigration protections for abused immigrants in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA, 1994). VAWA contains provisions that permit self-petitions for permanent residency and cancellation of removal (deportation). Other recent provisions helpful to immigrant battered women include the new 'U visas' for immigrant crime victims and asylum based on membership in gender-based social groups.

Advocates, policy makers and national domestic violence organizations are making sure that addressing the needs of battered immigrants is an important part of their national agenda. A great deal of education is required within both immigrant communities about the problem and potential solutions and immigrant serving programs about the needs of immigrant women and their families and the barriers that keep them from seeking or receiving help.