Immigrant Women and Domestic Violence

Immigrant Women and Domestic Violence

Dania’s Story

Dania was 27 years old when she came to the United States from India. Her husband was a U.S. citizen. After suffering harassment from her husband’s family, physical abuse at the hands of her husband, and his threats of deportation, Dania left her husband and sought shelter. On a “reconciliation trip” to India, he destroyed all of her documents including her passport. After obtaining a new passport and returning the U.S., Dania contacted an immigration attorney to assist her in getting out of the abusive relationship, and to seek assistance to petition to stay in the United States.

Recommendations for Working with Immigrant Women

Immigrant women are a diverse group and include women who have lived in the United States for one month, as well as women who have lived here for forty years. The immigrant woman who contacts you for help may have entered the United States as a refugee fleeing persecution in her country of origin, as a relative with family members in the United States, as a student, as a tourist, or as a worker seeking better economic conditions.

Shelters sometimes are concerned about the legal or funding consequences of serving battered immigrant women, particularly undocumented immigrant women. Some shelter providers mistakenly believe that it is unlawful to provide services to undocumented women. However, non-profit organizations are explicitly exempt from verifying immigration status as a condition for providing services. Further, any non-profit or government domestic violence services program or shelter that denies assistance to immigrants who are undocumented is violating the Attorney General's order requiring that services "necessary for the protection of life and safety" be provided without regard to immigration status and is violating civil rights and fair housing laws.

In general, immigration status is not relevant to a battered immigrant woman using your program's services. The fact that a woman may not be a U.S. citizen or lawful resident should not affect your ability to provide her with services. Her immigration status is only relevant for you to know if it may protect her from abuse, through knowing the risks she may be facing, and helping her become a permanent resident if she is eligible. To help a battered immigrant woman, you do not need to be an expert in the technicalities of immigration law. Your role as an advocate is to empower her by knowing the range of her options, and helping her find the assistance she needs. However, you should consult an immigration lawyer if you have determined that the victim's immigration status is uncertain.

Newly arrived battered immigrant women whose immigration status is not permanently established - because they are undocumented, conditional residents, or here on visas - have special needs. Typically, their batterers control and manipulate their unsettled immigration status as a means of keeping them in abusive relationships. These women experience the complex intersection of domestic violence with their immigration status.

Their option to reside legally and permanently in the United States may have been restricted by domestic violence. Your role is to learn about possible options, assist battered immigrant women in accessing them, and respect the decisions they make. It is up to the immigrant woman to decide whether she wants to reside in the United States or return to her country of origin.

Resources for Working with Immigrant Women


Power and Control Tactics Used Against Immigrant Women

This version of the Power and Control wheel, adapted with permission from the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, focuses on some of the many ways battered immigrant women can be abused. The Immigrant Women Power and Control Wheel is available in both English and Spanish.

The following describes, in more detail, some of the ways in which immigrant women are abused, although the experiences of individual victims will vary from case to case:

  • Lying about her immigration status.
  • Telling her family lies about her.
  • Calling her racist names.
  • Belittling and embarrassing her in front of family and friends.
  • Causing her to lose face.
  • Telling her that he has abandoned her culture and become "white," or "American."
  • Preventing her from visiting sick or dying relatives.
  • Lying about his ability to have the immigration status of his lawful permanent resident abuse victims changed.

Economic Abuse:
  • Forcing her to work "illegally" when she does not have a work permit.
  • Threatening to report her to INS if she works "under the table."
  • Not letting her get job training or schooling.
  • Taking the money her family back home were depending upon her to send them.
  • Forcing her to sign papers in English that she does not understand -- court papers, IRS forms, immigration papers.
  • Harassing her at the only job she can work at legally in the U.S., so that she loses that job and is forced to work "illegally."

Sexual Abuse:
  • Calling her a prostitute or a "mail order bride."
  • Accusing her of trying to attract other men when she puts on make-up to go to work.
  • Accusing her of sleeping with other men.
  • Alleging that she has a history of prostitution on legal papers.
  • Telling her that "as a matter of law" in the United States that she must continue to have sex with him whenever he wants until they are divorced.

Using Coercion and Threats:
  • Threatening to report her to the INS and get her deported.
  • Threatening that he will not file immigration papers to legalize her immigration status.
  • Threatening to withdraw the petition he filed to legalize her immigration status.
  • Telling her that he will harm someone in her family.
  • Telling her that he will have someone harm her family members
  • Threatening to harm or harass her employer or co-workers.

Using Children:
  • Threatening to remove her children from the United States.
  • Threatening to report her children to the INS.
  • Taking the money she was to send to support her children in her home country.
  • Telling her he will have her deported and he will keep the children with him in the U.S.
  • Convincing her that if she seeks help from the courts or the police the U.S. legal system will give him custody of the children. (In many countries men are given legal control over the children and he convinces her that the same thing will occur here.)

Using Citizenship or Residency Privilege:
  • Failing to file papers to legalize her immigration status.
  • Withdrawing or threatening to withdraw immigration papers filed for her residency.
  • Controlling her ability to work.
  • Using the fact of her undocumented immigration status to keep her from reporting abuse or leaving with the children.
  • Telling her that the police will arrest her for being undocumented if she calls the police for help because of the abuse.

  • Hiding or destroying important papers (i.e. her passport, her children's passports, ID cards, health care cards, etc.)
  • Destroying the only property that she brought with her from her home country.
  • Destroying photographs of her family members.
  • Threatening persons who serve as a source of support for her.
  • Threatening to do or say something that will shame her family or cause them to lose face.
  • Threatening to divulge family secrets.

  • Isolating her from friends, or family members.
  • Isolating her from persons who speak her language.
  • Not allowing her to learn English or not allowing her to communicate in a language she is fluent in.
  • Being the only person through whom she can communicat in English.
  • Reading her mail and not allowing her to use the telephone.
  • Strictly timing all her grocery trips and other travel times.
  • Not allowing her to continue to meet with social workers and other support persons.
  • Cutting off her subscriptions to or destroying newspapers and other support magazines.
  • Not allowing her to meet with people who speak her language or who are from her community, culture, or country.

Minimizing, Denying, Blaming:
  • Convincing her that his violent actions are not criminal unless they occur in public.
  • Telling her that he is allowed to physically punish her because he is the "man."
  • Blaming her for the breakup of the family, if she leaves him because of the violence.
  • Telling her that she is responsible for the violence because she did not do as he wished.


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