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About Abuse

Abuse in Immigrant Communities

Updated: 
December 18, 2020

Immigrant survivors of domestic violence may be subject to unique forms of abuse, especially those who are undocumented or whose legal status depends on the abuser. Even though we are focusing on undocumented immigrants in these pages, some of this information may be useful for immigrants who haven’t acquired their US citizenship or whose partner has used immigration status as a threat.

Is abuse different for undocumented immigrants?

Physical, emotional, sexual, and other kinds of abuse occur in all communities. Immigrants are vulnerable to the same kinds of abuse as everyone else, described on our Forms of Abuse page. Abusers may, however, use immigration status as an extra weapon of power and control, threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if a victim challenges or reports domestic or sexual violence. Those who are undocumented may be particularly vulnerable to this type of threat because they fear being deported if they challenge or report their abusers to law enforcement.

Another way that abusers who are U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents can target undocumented immigrants is through their ability to sponsor, or to refuse to sponsor, the immigrant survivor for their legal status. They can use this control as a weapon against their victims to keep them from reporting abuse. For instance, if abused immigrant survivors report domestic violence, their abusive “sponsor” may call, or threaten to call, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to tell them that their marriage was a fraud and that they want to withdraw their sponsorship. This is why Congress created special routes to status for immigrants who are abused by U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident spouses through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Through VAWA, an abused immigrant can self-petition for legal permanent residence or can get a battered spouse waiver to remove the abusive spouse from the process of changing a conditional green card to a ten-year green card.

An abuser’s threat to try to jeopardize a survivor’s immigration status isn’t only reserved for undocumented immigrants, however. Even an immigrant with lawful permanent residence may lose his/her legal status if s/he is convicted of certain crimes or for other reasons.1

1 See INA § 237

Can undocumented domestic violence survivors get the same help as U.S. citizens?

Undocumented survivors of domestic and sexual violence have the same right as everyone else to access domestic violence services and our U.S. court systems. Because domestic violence shelters are necessary to protect life and safety, they may not refuse to help people based on their immigration status. Because the U.S. Constitution requires due process for every “person” in the United States,1 not every “citizen,” our courts must be open to all domestic violence survivors, including undocumented immigrants. This does not mean, however, that it is always safe for undocumented survivors go to court. Domestic violence advocates can help survivors who are not citizens (and therefore may fear being deported) by ensuring they are not, for instance, detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they try to get a restraining order, a divorce or custody of their children. Immigrant survivors may also fear that the courts will use their immigration status against them.

Undocumented victims have the same access to the court system as anyone else does. However, victims who are undocumented or who have temporary legal status that will expire during the court proceedings may feel especially hesitant to go to court. Although there have been instances where undocumented immigrants were picked up by Immigration while appearing in a court proceeding,2 this is not the norm. In fact, some states’ laws even have specific protections that prohibit court personnel from revealing an immigrant’s legal status if it becomes known during the court proceeding.3 And, in addition, seeking the court’s help through a protection order or reporting a domestic violence crime to the police may even help an undocumented immigrant gain legal status through a U visa.

To ensure immigrant survivors can get the same safety and justice as other domestic violence survivors, Congress has created several routes to status for undocumented survivors. To learn more about the VAWA self-petition, the U visa, and the T visa, please visit our Immigration page. You can also see our video series about U visas, including the requirements to file for one, on our Videos page. You can also find immigration resources on our National Organizations - Immigration page.

If you are worried about whether or not your immigration status may be at risk if you go to court, please talk to a local domestic violence advocate who may be able to help you weigh the pros and cons of seeking out the court’s help. Talking to a lawyer who specializes in domestic violence and immigration matters can also be very helpful. You can find referrals to both on our Places that Help page.

1 U.S. Const. amend. X
2 See “The Woman Arrested by ICE in a Courthouse Speaks Out,” The New Yorker; and “A mother and her son turned up for a domestic-violence case. Then ICE arrested them,” The Charlotte Observer
3 See, for example, New York City’s Executive Order No. 34 of 2003

What are the "unique" types of abuse immigrant survivors may suffer?

Here are some ways abusers may try to keep power and control over immigrant victims, including ways that undocumented victims may be specifically targeted:

  • stopping the victim from learning English;
  • refusing to let the victim speak with friends or family from his/her home country;
  • threatening to report or actually reporting an undocumented victim to Immigration officials or to the police;
  • withdrawing or threatening to withdraw applications for lawful permanent residence (“green card”);
  • falsely filing criminal charges with the police against a victim who has lawful residence (a “green card”) in an attempt to get him/her deported for a criminal conviction or plea;
  • destroying the victim’s important documents, like his/her passport, resident card, health insurance card, driver’s license, or proof of the relationship with the abuser, which may be necessary for getting legal immigration status;
  • lying to the victim and telling him/her that s/he will be deported or lose his/her residency or citizenship or if s/he reports the abuse to the police;
  • getting the victim fired from his/her job by telling an employer that the victim is undocumented;
  • telling the survivor that reporting abuse to the police will get her or her children deported;
  • telling the survivor that s/he can’t get custody of his/her children because she is undocumented;
  • providing inaccurate information in English in conversations with police, judges, doctors, or others in positions of power when the survivor does not have an independent interpreter; and
  • threatening to have the victim deported while the abuser remains in the United States with their children.

What non-legal options do immigrant survivors of abuse have?

If an immigrant survivor of abuse is worried about starting a court process against the abuser or reporting abuse to the police, s/he can still prepare a safety plan to think through specific steps for how to stay safe. You can find some suggestions on our Safety Tips page. You will also find special resources and documents for those who fear deportation on ASISTA’s website. An immigrant victim of violence can also contact his/her local Advocates and Shelters to see what other options might be available.

If you are an immigrant experiencing abuse or you are concerned about someone who is, you can send your questions to our Email Hotline.