Victims of domestic abuse who are also immigrants to the United States often experience challenges that can make it even harder for them to escape the violence in their lives. Abusers may threaten to report undocumented immigrants to authorities to have them deported, destroy or hide important legal documents and identification, stop victims from learning English or isolate them from joining a new community, among other methods of coercion and control.
But there are both legal and practical steps immigrants can take to create a safety plan and work on getting out. We’ll cover what specific steps immigrant survivors should add to their safety plan as well as legal options to consider.
What is a Safety Plan for Immigrant Domestic Violence Victims?
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A safety plan helps you have a strategy in place for safely escaping a dangerous or frightening encounter with an abuser, even if it’s just temporarily. A safety plan can also help prepare you to leave an abuser for good. It doesn’t mean you have to leave your home—a safety plan can help you figure out where to be safe temporarily until you can work out your long-term plans.
A trained domestic violence advocate near you can make it much easier to create a safety plan—advocates can help you find resources, programs, financial assistance and support. You can also get help with a safety plan through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or find options for text messaging and online chat on their website.
A successful safety plan covers four important areas:
- Assess the current and potential risks to you, and if you have them, your children and pets.
- Create strategies that avoid or reduce these risks.
- Outline steps you can take to be safe in potentially dangerous situations.
- Cover things you can do for emotional safety and health.
Remember that a safety plan is not a replacement for calling 911 if you’re in an immediately dangerous situation. If you’re in imminent danger, you can call 911 and request an interpreter if you don’t speak English.
It’s also important to note that domestic violence shelters don’t require identification, so immigrant victims seeking shelter and help who may not have documentation or legal IDs can still use shelter services.
What Extra Steps Should Immigrants Add to Their Domestic Abuse Safety Plan?
Learn more about customizing your safety plan—because no safety plan is a one-size-fits-all solution. However, there are special extra steps and considerations that you can add to your safety plan as an immigrant.
- Keep your important documents safe. Abusers of immigrants may destroy or hide important documents like passports, resident cards, driver’s licenses, health insurance cards or other proof of your relationship with the abuser that could be needed to get legal immigration status. To keep your documents secure, you can put them together in a safe place that you can access easily or ask a trusted friend or family member to keep them safe for you.
- Learn about domestic abuse resources in your own language. Abusers may provide inaccurate information to those in positions of power—plus abusers often make it hard or impossible for victims to learn English. The Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCADSV) has put together a helpful page with wide range of multi-language resources.
- Understand forms of U.S. immigration relief. Even if you’re an undocumented immigrant, you have U.S. legal rights. The U.S. constitution requires that every person in the United States have due process, not just citizens. That means U.S. courts must be open to all domestic abuse survivors, including undocumented immigrants. Despite this consideration, it is important to know that it’s not always in your best interest to go to court, especially alone. According to the Tahirih Justice Center, because of the complexity of the immigration system, particularly in gender-based asylum cases, success without an attorney is only 16 percent. A trained domestic violence advocate can help you secure legal representation from an immigration attorney to help your court case. Before going to court, you should speak with an immigration lawyer to make sure this is your best next step.
What Forms of Immigration Relief Are Available to Immigrant Domestic Abuse Victims?
After a safety plan comes escape (hopefully) and then a safer future. Looking ahead, immigrants should know they have multiple forms of immigration relief available to them in the U.S. specifically created for victims of domestic abuse, violence, and sex trafficking.
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Immigrant status for a victim of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or particular social group in your home country.
Four years of non-immigrant status for victims of “Forced Commercial Sex Act” or “Forced Labor.”
Four years of non-immigrant status for victims of a serious crime who cooperate with law enforcement.
Violence Against Women Act (VAWA):
Permanent residency for victims of abuse perpetrated by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. Note that despite the act’s name, this is not only available to women.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status:
Permanent residency for children who can’t reunite with a parent due to abandonment, abuse or neglect.
You’re Not Trapped
You can escape an abusive partner and have a life free from physical and emotional violence, even if you’re new to the country, don’t speak English or are an undocumented immigrant. There is help available to you, and you have legal rights in the U.S.
Find a trained domestic violence advocate near you, call, text or chat with the National Domestic Violence Hotline or reach out to the Tahirih Justice Center.
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