Support for Undocumented Survivors of Domestic Violence – Safely Breaking Free from Abuse Without Fear of Deportation
- Individual Immigration
In the shadows of the American Dream, a silent epidemic persists—undocumented men and women facing the harrowing reality of domestic violence within the borders of the United States. The National Domestic Violence Hotline estimates that over 10 million people in the US are physically abused by an intimate partner every year – nearly 20 people per minute.
Of these victims, those without legal immigration status face an especially challenging dilemma. For such individuals, many of whom were drawn to the US by the promise of a better life, escaping an abusive situation often presents an impossible choice: remain with a partner that threatens to harm you or risk deportation by fleeing to the authorities. Today on the Eagan blog, we’ll discuss what to do in this situation, and how the fact of your immigration status need not ever affect your decision to escape an abusive situation.
Last month, in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States, we discussed the VAWA self-petition, a pathway to legal status available to undocumented victims of psychological, financial or physical abuse from their partner or children. A VAWA applicant can expect to receive their work permit within 6-8 months of filing their petition. While an undocumented DV victim should absolutely pursue VAWA as a path to long-term empowerment, in extreme situations, he or she may not have this long to wait. Where the threat of violence at home exists, there are several steps we recommend to our clients to help them seek immediate relief:
- Contact Your Local Domestic Violence Hotline: Your first step in leaving an abusive relationship should be to get in touch with a local domestic violence hotline. Doing so is the best way to learn what resources, like food banks and housing assistance, are available in your area. You can be certain that the person you speak with has helped many people in similar situations and can provide guidance on how to safely leave an abusive relationship. You can be certain as well that you will NOT have to disclose your immigration status, nor report the abuse you are suffering to law enforcement if you don’t want to. Unsure of how to contact your local Domestic Violence Hotline? Dial the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a free, nation-wide service available in both English and Spanish that will connect you with crisis resources accessible in your area.
- Seek Legal Advice: An immigration attorney, like those at Eagan Immigration, can help you navigate complicated legal questions, such as your options to fix your status without the help of your abusive spouse, or whether it serves your interests to report them to the police. Alternatively, you could contact a legal aid organization. The important thing is that you are in the know about your rights.
- Gather Important Documents: Collect essential documents such as identification, passports, birth certificates, and any relevant immigration papers, then make copies. You may not have access to these after leaving your abusive partner, and having to request replacements is likely to be expensive and time-consuming.
- Create a Safety Plan: If you are afraid of your spouse becoming violent, then it is essential that you create a plan for what to do in an emergency, identifying safe places to go, emergency contacts and, if applicable, a plan for what to do with your children. At Eagan, we have helped several of our clients create these. Ideally, however, a safety plan should be developed in coordination with a domestic violence counselor or advocate who can provide you with expert advice. The Domestic Violence Hotline (see above) should be able to put you in touch with one.
- Notify Trusted Friends or Family: It may be difficult to reach out to someone to explain what you are going through. However, abuse tends to thrive in isolation, so connecting with someone who can help you feel safe is an important step towards leaving an abusive situation. If this step still feels emotionally overwhelming to you, we recommend you speak first with a domestic violence counselor. Once you are ready to talk to a trusted friend or family member, tell them about your experience, then share your safety plan with them. Let them know what they can do to support you.
- Secure Finances: If possible, start saving money or set aside a small emergency fund. Attempt as well to ensure that you have continued access to your bank account. Depending on the details of your safety plan, some money may be necessary for transportation, emergency housing and other necessities. If saving money is not possible because of your abusive partner, discuss your situation with a DV counselor so that you can adjust your plan.
- Document Abuse: A “paper trail” of the abuse you have suffered will be useful for you in any future legal proceedings. For instance, at Eagan we use evidence such as photos of injuries, police reports, hospital bills and witness letters to strengthen our clients’ VAWA cases. If it is safe to do so, you may also want to keep a journal to record incidents of abuse, including dates, times, and details.
- Be Prepared to Talk to the Police: You are not alone if you do not feel safe talking to law enforcement. However, it is important to be emotionally prepared for the possibility of interacting with police, such as in a situation where you need to call 911 or file a restraining order. You should know ahead of time that if asked about your status, you have the right to remain silent or not answer. It is also a good idea to talk with a legal professional about your rights.
We hope that if you or someone you love is threatened by domestic violence, then the steps above offer a measure of hope. You CAN find freedom regardless of your immigration status.
The Eagan Immigration mission is to empower immigrants to achieve legal status, security and peace of mind. To do so, our immigration attorneys employ every possible means to find pathways to residency and citizenship for our clients. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call (202) 709-6439 to schedule a free consult with us today.