shutterstock_316304594October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which is intended to shine a light on the human right to be free from violence, ensure that all victims of domestic violence know they are not alone, and foster supportive communities that help survivors seek justice.  In the United States, twenty people are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner each minute. Most victims don’t come forward because it is not safe; in fact leaving an abusive relationship is often when victims are at the greatest risk of homicide by their abusive partners.

Immigrant victims are particularly vulnerable as they often live in the shadows of society and face additional challenges to reporting abuse and/or leaving an abusive relationship. These barriers include fear that police contact may lead to deportation, separation from children and other family members, language barriers, isolation, and fear of being ostracized by their families or communities for coming forward.  Many undocumented immigrant victims are not aware that they are protected by U.S. laws and have options for escaping the violence. They don’t know that they have access to police or court protections.

This vulnerability is increased further when a victim’s immigration status depends on an abusive intimate partner or relative. For example, the victim may depend on a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse to file a family-based immigration petition on his or her behalf.  Abusers often delay, revoke, or fail to file petitions for their family members as a tactic for maintaining power and control. Threats of deportation and/or separating victims from their children provide abusers with an effective tool for silencing their victims.

What many people don’t know is that federal law provides numerous forms of protection for immigrant victims of domestic violence, including the following:

  • VAWA Self Petition – The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows certain battered spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens and spouses and children of permanent residents to obtain permanent residence without knowledge or consent of the abuser. This allows victims to seek both safety and independence from their abuser.
  • I-751 Battered Spouse Waiver – The Immigration Reform Act of 1990 created protections to allow a victim to remove conditions on permanent resident status without the assistance of his or her abusive spouse and without having to stay in the abusive relationship for two years.
  • U Visa – U nonimmigrant status is available to victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse as a result of the crime, and who are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.
  • T Visa – T nonimmigrant status is available to provide protection to victims of human trafficking, while strengthening the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute human trafficking. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) is up for reauthorization this year.
  • Asylum – Asylum is a means to protect individuals who have been persecuted or who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The BIA recognizes domestic violence as a basis for asylum and that women who flee such persecution may establish membership in a particular social group.

As domestic violence continues to plague our society, USCIS is proposing new policies to assist victims including the I-765V Application for Employment Authorization for Abused Nonimmigrant Spouse. This policy would offer employment authorization eligibility to an abused spouse, and while this temporary relief is still in the information collection and review phase, it is a positive sign of support for a vulnerable group of people.

However, help for immigrant victims of domestic violence is often slow to come because of significant USCIS processing delays. in these categories of relief. U visa petitioners are now waiting approximately 2.5 years for an initial waitlist determination and could wait several more years for a final decision.  Because of the increasing number of U visa petitions filed each year, it is expected that the wait will continue to skyrocket. Some good news is that USCIS has agreed to institute a parole program in FY2017 so that U petitioners, particularly those who are stuck outside of the United States, can travel and enter the U.S. to be reunited with their family members.  In relation to asylum cases, Human Rights First recently issued a report discussing the ballooning backlogs in asylum adjudications at USCIS and in immigration court that leave refugees at risk, prolong family separation, and strand some families in dangerous situations abroad.

What Can Attorneys Do to Help?

Attorneys are uniquely positioned to assist immigrant survivors in a number of ways:

  • Research effective intake and screening tools to identify the signs of domestic and sexual violence;
  • Become better informed about relief for immigrant survivors of domestic and sexual violence and how to effectively work with survivors in a culturally competent and trauma-informed manner; and,
  • Take a pro bono case for an immigrant survivor of domestic violence.

Furthermore, attorneys can influence local policies for immigrant survivors of domestic and sexual abuse in their own communities, by:

  • Coordinating with domestic violence/sexual assault organizations on joint or cross-training efforts; and
  • Working with law enforcement to educate agencies about the purpose of these immigration benefits and to develop U visa certification policies.

Written by AILA’s VAWA, Us, and Ts Committee Co-Chair Robin Dalton and Committee Members Teresa Messer and Mirella Ceja-Orozco

 Note: Today is Purple Thursday, when people across the country are wearing purple to raise awareness about domestic violence. To learn more about how attorneys are helping domestic violence survivors, watch Committee Co-Chair Robin Dalton describe her experience assisting immigrants in AILA’s October Interview of the Month.