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About Abuse

Abuse in Immigrant Communities

Updated: 
January 31, 2019

Immigrant victims of domestic violence may be subject to unique forms of abuse, especially those who are undocumented or whose legal status depends on the abuser.

Is there a difference between abuse suffered by immigrants who are undocumented versus those with more secure legal status?

Physical, emotional, sexual, and other kinds of abuse occur in all communities. Immigrant victims are vulnerable to the kinds of abuse described on our Forms of Abuse page just as non-immigrants are. However, abusers may also use other kinds of abusive behaviors against immigrant victims of domestic violence, especially acts that specifically target their legal ability to remain in the U.S. In addition, immigrant victims who are undocumented or whose legal status is dependent on the abuser may be in an even more vulnerable position than an immigrant who has legal permanent residency. However, even someone with legal permanent residency may lose his/her legal status if s/he is convicted of certain crimes or for other reasons.1

1 INA § 237; Even With a Green Card, an Immigrant Can be Deported Under New Guidelines, Miami Herald

What legal options are there for immigrant victims of abuse? Do undocumented immigrants have the same legal options as immigrants with more secure status?

There could be legal options for immigrant victims of domestic violence to try to end the abuse, whether they are documented or undocumented. 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. Many immigrant victims of domestic violence fear the legal system and worry that getting help from a domestic violence program or starting a legal court case for protection could have a negative impact on them. For example, even though immigrant survivors can legally file for a restraining order, custody, or divorce, the victim may fear that his/her undocumented status will become known, either by the abuser telling the judge or by the judge questioning the victim about it. Although there have been instances where victims were picked up by Immigration due to their immigration status while appearing in state court for a domestic violence related matters,1 there are many more instances where immigrant victims, including undocumented immigrants, get life-saving protection orders, custody orders, and divorces from courts without risking their status. In fact, some states even have specific protections in their laws that prohibit court personnel, including clerks, judges, etc., from revealing an immigrant’s legal status if it becomes known during the court proceeding.2 In fact, seeking the court’s help through a protection order or reporting a domestic violence crime to the police may even lead help an undocumented immigrant gain legal status through a U visa.

To see more legal options specifically for immigrant victims of domestic violence, including 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 in your county 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 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
2 See, for example, New York City’s Executive Order No. 34 of 2003

What types of abuse do immigrant victims 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;
  • falsely filing criminal charges with the police against a victim who has legal residency in an attempt to create a risk that s/he could lose his/her residency if convicted;1
  • withdrawing or threatening to withdraw applications for residency or citizenship;
  • destroying the victim’s legal documents, like his/her passport, resident card, health insurance card, or driver’s license;
  • 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 victim that the authorities will take away his/her children if s/he calls the police;2
  • threatening to file for custody of the victim’s children even though the abuser doesn’t actually want custody and convincing the victim that s/he will lose custody because s/he is an immigrant;
  • taking advantage of the fact that the victim doesn’t speak or understand English by giving false information in English about the victim to police, judges, doctors, or others in positions of power; and
  • threatening to have the victim deported while the abuser remains in the United States with their children.

1 INA § 237
2 This information was adapted from “Abuse & Immigrants” by the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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

If a domestic violence victim 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. An immigrant victim of violence can also contact his/her local Advocates and Shelters to see what other options might be available.

Being an immigrant who doesn’t yet have permanent residency or citizenship can be a very vulnerable position to be in. If the victim is isolated because his/her support system is far away, and s/he doesn’t know the language, it can be very difficult to figure out the exact steps of how to get out of an abusive relationship. It could be even more difficult if the victim is undocumented and afraid to seek help from police or the courts. However, there are organizations that may be able to provide some support and guide a victim towards figuring out what alternatives may be appropriate for his/her situation while lowering the risk of coming into contact with Immigration officials.

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