Immigrants and a Heightened Danger of Abuse During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Katie Embley

Stay-at-home measures and social distancing guidelines around the world are part a desperate global effort to slow the spread of a deadly pandemic. Unfortunately, being forced to stay at home can be very dangerous for those whose homes are not safe places.

The New York Times reported that “domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.” The homepage of the National Domestic Violence Hotline is dedicated to “Staying Safe During COVID-19,” explaining how the pandemic could uniquely impact survivors and how to create a safety plan.

Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence; it affects people of all different backgrounds, genders, and races. One factor that can lead to a heightened risk of danger in an abusive relationship is the victim being an immigrant.

There are stories of immigrants all around the world who felt especially vulnerable in their abusive situation because of their lack of legal status. (See examples in Ireland, Poland, and England.) In the United States, one San Diego lawyer working with immigrant victims of domestic violence explained that “[o]ur refugee and immigrant community is already one of the most vulnerable populations, even in the best of times, because they experience unique challenges. . . Right now, during this pandemic, those issues are magnified.”

When a victim of domestic violence is an immigrant, they may be less likely to seek help due to a fear of law enforcement or due to language barriers that can limit the victim’s access to information and increase the victim’s dependency on their abuser. The victim may be less likely to try to leave the situation due to an insecure financial situation and difficulty in finding a job or due to being too far away from family or a support system.

Immigrants are especially at risk in an abusive situation because their abuser might try to use their immigration status against them. The abuser could threaten to “call immigration,” or have the victim deported. The abuser could refuse to help the victims with their immigration process, or they could utilize the fact that the victim’s status depends on their relationship to stop the victim from leaving. The abuser could threaten to destroy or hide essential documents and evidence. The Women of Color Network, Inc. explains that “the threat of deportation is a powerful and intimidating control scheme” in the context of domestic violence, and it is “very difficult to overcome.”

This problem was addressed by Congress in 2000, when the Violence Against Women Act was amended to include a provision for abused immigrants. Under this act, an immigrant who had been abused by a U.S. Citizen (or Permanent Resident) spouse, child, or parent would have been eligible to petition for permanent residency without the help of their abuser. This would potentially provide a way for the victim to receive a work authorization, permanent residency, and, eventually, citizenship.

The process was treated with utmost confidentiality to help ensure the safety of the victims. Also, if one filed as an abused spouse, a VAWA petition could be filed within two years of divorce, allowing the victim to get out of the abusive situation and still request legal assistance. Unfortunately, the Violence Against Women Act has expired.

There are a few other potential remedies available to immigrants who experience different types of abuse. A “U Visa” is available to immigrants who are victims of a crime and are willing to help law enforcement with their investigation or prosecution of the offender. A “T Visa” is available to immigrants who have been victims of human trafficking. Both the U and T visas provide petitioners with the path to a work permit and, eventually, Permanent Resident status. These remedies, along with the VAWA self-petitioning options, are available to help these immigrant victims get out of their situation and start building a new life.

Victims of domestic abuse should know they have certain rights that are not affected by their immigration status. For example, USCIS has clearly stated that, regardless of immigration status, all people in the United States are guaranteed these basic protections:

  • “The right to obtain a protection order for you and your child(ren).
  • The right to legal separation or divorce without the consent of your spouse.
  • The right to share certain marital property.  In cases of divorce, the court will divide any property or financial assets you and your spouse have together.
  • The right to ask for custody of your child(ren) and financial support.  Parents of children under the age of 21 often are required to pay child support for any child not living with them.

Like with all forms of domestic violence, increased awareness of the signs and symptoms of violence is crucial for getting victims the help they need. There are numerous organizations and people providing assistance. For example, The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a hotline that is available 24/7, every day of the year, in more than 200 languages. Talking on the phone or chatting with them is free and completely confidential.

This “stay-at-home” phase we have all been experiencing has been difficult in many ways. But for those who are in abusive home situations, especially those whose immigration status is being used to control them, it has become even more important to recognize the abuse they are experiencing and get help.

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