By: Nicole Gibson
Recent changes to immigration policies accompanied by public condemnation of undocumented immigrants has made it more difficult for many to escape dangerous or abusive relationships. Immigrant survivors of domestic violence often have limited options available when trying to escape future abuse, and increased threats of deportation only amplify these difficulties. Currently, undocumented persons who suffer from abuse are afforded a few narrow ways to apply for legal status without the help of an abusive partner.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows survivors to “self-petition” for legal status, and the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 2000 (VAWA 2000) created “U” visas for victims of violent crimes and “T” visas for victims of human trafficking. Of course, all of these options require the applicant to first report themselves to the relevant government entity for consideration which can lead to deportation. For individuals with children who are United States citizens, immigrants who fled dangerous circumstances in their home country, or others with limited economic resources, the risk of deportation can present an insurmountable barrier.
Immigrant populations already face significant difficulties given that many may not speak English well, are separated from friends and family, and are often unfamiliar with United States immigration laws. It is not uncommon for abusive partners to take advantage of these circumstances to control and limit resources or information that a survivor would need to pursue legal status. As a result, many undocumented immigrants feel trapped in and unable to flee from abusive relationships. Unlike the majority of immigrants, those who find the resources to hire an immigration lawyer to represent them, face additional hurdles.
For example, VAWA “self-petitions” require the applicant to show the relationship or marriage was in good faith, the applicant was physically present in the United States for three years, that the applicant was battered or subjected to extreme cruelty by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, along with several other vague requirements such as “good moral character.” Evidence of abuse can be hard to come by for undocumented immigrant survivors, given that they are disincentivized from reporting incidents to the police due to risk of deportation, and even in the event that they do report incidents, their abuser can still limit their access to documentation.
Similarly, “U” and “T” visas demand a lot from applicants. Both of these options are capped at a certain number of people per year and require the applicant to actively provide assistance in the prosecution of crimes to the U.S. government among other requirements. This may prove problematic if the person is not a victim of a crime the U.S. is trying to prosecute, or if the person’s wounds are too raw for them to be able to assist.
The current political climate and public hostility toward undocumented immigrant populations has caused even more trepidation among survivors about coming forward. Recent news reports of deportations occurring in courtrooms or for minor offenses understandably cause at-risk populations to limit their interactions with any government agencies, much less the police or the criminal justice system. For example, though Houston, Texas has a fast-growing immigrant community, reports of domestic violence have dropped by sixteen percent in the past year. Local police blame tough immigration enforcement and the hostile political climate for this decline in reporting.
Advocates for immigration reform would do well to consider the collateral consequences of our current treatment of immigrants. Without some serious reconsideration of the way we discuss immigration issues and our immigration policies, survivors of assault or abuse will continue to suffer silently throughout the country.
 Cora Engelbrecht, Fewer Immigrants Are Reporting Domestic Abuse. Police Blame Fear of Deportation, N.Y. Times (June 3, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/us/immigrants-houston-domestic-violence.html.
 American Immigration Council, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Provides Protections for Immigrant Women and Victims of Crimes 2 (2012).
 Id. at 2-5.
 Immigration Policy, National Network to End Domestic Violence, https://nnedv.org/content/immigration-policy/ (last visited Jan. 1, 2019).
 American Immigration Council, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Provides Protections for Immigrant Women and Victims of Crimes 5 (2012).
 Arvind Dilawar, How Anti-Immigration Policy Spurs Domestic Violence, Pacific Standard (Aug. 10, 2018), https://psmag.com/social-justice/how-anti-immigration-policy-spurs-domestic-violence.
 American Immigration Council, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Provides Protections for Immigrant Women and Victims of Crimes 2-5 (2012).
 Richard Gonzales, ICE Detains Alleged Victim of Domestic Abuse at Texas Courthouse, NPR (Feb. 6. 2017), https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/16/515685385/ice-detains-a-victim-of-domestic-abuse-at-texas-courthouse.
 Cora Engelbrecht, Fewer Immigrants are Reporting Domestic Abuse. Police Blame Fear of Deportation, N.Y. Times (June 3, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/us/immigrants-houston-domestic-violence.html.