Domestic violence, terrifying for anyone, presents special dilemmas for immigrants who lack legal status in the U.S. The ability of immigrants to get legal status when they marry either citizens of the United States or lawful permanent residents is tied to the status of those spouses. Approximately 52.2% of the American born spouses and 9.7 % of naturalized citizens are the abusers in these cases.
Abusers know how vulnerable and dependent their immigrant spouses are and use this imbalance of power and control to manipulate and control them. They engage in a kind of insidious ‘immigration related abuse” that makes it extremely difficult for an abused victim to leave her abuser, get a protection order, access domestic violence services, call the police or participate in the abuser’s prosecution. There is an increased probability of lethality for victims of immigration related abuse, due to language and cultural barriers, social isolation, economic dependence, and threats by abusers to take away their children or report them to immigration if they call the police, creating a situation where they are too afraid to leave, when it’s too dangerous to stay. They are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Many battered immigrants are afraid to get help. They don’t believe authorities will help them because of their unauthorized status. They don’t understand the legal system or their rights. They believe that police officers will whisk them off to jail or deport them due to their status. Police don’t have authority to deport anyone.
What rights do immigrant domestic violence victims have?
Victims of domestic violence and emotional cruelty who are married to U.S. citizens or permanent residents can file a petition without their abusive spouses and still get their green cards. To do this, they file an I-360 petition with US Citizenship and Immigration Services along with documentation of the abuse; evidence of a good-faith marriage and proof of good moral character. All information in this petition is confidential. There is no filing fee. The Virginia Family Violence and Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-838-8238 may have references for places that assist immigrants for a low fee or no fee.
Victims of domestic violence who are not married to the abuser, or who have been abused by non US citizens or lawful permanent residents, are not eligible to self-petition under VAWA, but may seek status under the U visa. The U visa was passed by Congress to help these victims obtain legal status and as a law enforcement tool to assist in the prosecution of criminal activity by victims who suffer mental or physical abuse, if they are helpful or likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.
Examples of criminal activity include Abduction, Sexual Contact, Blackmail, Domestic Violence, Extortion, False Imprisonment, Female Genital Mutilation, Perjury, Felonious Assault, Being held Hostage, Obstruction of Justice, Witness Tampering, Prostitution, Rape, Slave Trade, Torture, Trafficking, Sexual Exploitation and Unlawful Criminal Restraint.
Approved U-visa petitioners receive temporary legal status and work authorization, so they can support themselves and rebuild their lives in safety while assisting law enforcement. The U visa is an effective tool for bringing domestic violence victims, who depend on the perpetrator for legal status or economic support, out of the shadows. The prospect of a U visa may also eliminate the person’s fear of calling the police for help, and, once connected to legal and social service systems, some of the pressures that discourage domestic violence victims to leave a relationship may be alleviated, allowing them to ultimately break the cycle of abuse so that they are no longer too afraid to leave when it is too dangerous to stay. For more information, go to the “Humanitarian” section of the USCIS website: www.uscis.gov
By Donna (Donusia) Lipinski, Immigration Lawyer with Blue Ridge Immigration Law Center, PLLC, in Old Town Warrenton, working with families, businesses and individuals live the American dream in Fauquier, Culpeper and surrounding counties published in the Fauquier Times Democrat, October 2010