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Legal Remedies for Battered Immigrant Women

vawa-fb-300x300 - frameIn the early 1990’s, I worked for Miami-Dade County in a refugee program that provided advocacy for Haitian & Cuban women who were involved in domestic violence.  At that time, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) had not been put into legislation and there was little legal remedy or relief for battered immigrant women whose immigration status was not permanently established.  Since then, there have been major steps in assisting battered immigrant women as immigration law has evolved to include self-petitions for relief through VAWA, as well as the U visa category, where a victim of crime (including domestic violence) can be offered immigration relief.

When I started working at Catholic Charities in 2009 I received a call from an immigrant woman who was involved in domestic violence and her husband was threatening to have her deported.  Within weeks, I came across another immigrant woman who divulged her visa had expired and upon interviewing her I learned of an incident where she had accompanied her US citizen spouse to an appointment with an immigration attorney and had the forms necessary for him to petition for her to attain legal permanent resident status prepared.  But instead of having the attorney mail the completed application, her husband took it home saying he had changed his mind and was going to “report her to immigration.” The combination of coming across these two women so early on in my tenure at Catholic Charities was the catalyst for me to take the steps to implement a legal services program and to become a BIA accredited representative.

As an agency that assists battered immigrant women – regardless if they are here undocumented, are a conditional resident, or here on a visa – we are committed to ensuring our clients can take the control of their immigration status away from their abusive spouse’s hands.  We can assist them with filing VAWA self-petitions or U nonimmigrant status applications (both provide a pathway to a legal immigration status), or prepare the petition needed for their conditional residency be changed to permanent residency without their abusive spouse’s signature by using the “extreme cruelty” waiver option.


A declaration or statement from the client that thoroughly addresses her abuse is the foundation of all of these petitions or applications.  A VAWA self-petitioner or a U nonimmigrant applicant often wins or loses her case based on how effectively she can show in her own declaration whether or not she meets the eligibility requirements to receive the immigration benefit she is applying for.  Because of my prior work in Miami, I am very familiar with the language and cultural barriers that often prevent immigrant women from disclosing their abuse.  But once they are ready to get some assistance it is essential to capture their story (often letting it unfold over several appointments) and then helping them submit the strongest statement or declaration possible.

As someone who is going to file their case, it is extremely important to use interviewing techniques that will flesh out the intersection between culture and the different types of abuse.  The power and control tactics used by batterers include physical violence, coercion, threats, intimidation, and isolation, destruction of important documents or possessions, and emotional, sexual or economic abuse.  An abuser of immigrant woman also employs culture to enhance their control.  During interviews, I have had clients describe how their husband prevented them from learning English or would force them to sign papers that were written in English they could not understand, how money they were saving to send to their families back home was stolen, how they were shamed in front of their family members or others from their community, or how their passports and birth certificates (as well as their children’s) were hidden or destroyed, or how the abuser was telling lies to their family or how they were made to say disrespectful things to them during telephone calls.  The psychological abuse that seemed to be the most effective though was the threat of deportation.  The fear of being physically separated from their children because they could be sent back home without them is often the most debilitating.

Since batterers can manipulate immigrant women into staying in abusive relationships if they think they will be deported and permanently separated from their children, it is important to educate them about their rights and the resources available in their community they can get to protect themselves. And once they are ready to take action on their situation, it is important for their new host community to have the appropriate resources it takes to help them leave an abusive home.  Ithaca’s Advocacy Center works hard to make sure all women, including immigrant women, can seek safety, shelter and other types of support services if they are being abused.  Local law enforcement are available to immigrant women and their children, and are there to ensure their safety.  And as stated before, Catholic Charities is committed to ensuring battered immigrant women can get the legal services needed to take the control of their immigration status away from their abusive spouse’s hands.

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep