Empowering domestic violence survivors to find their voice

Domestic Violence Awareness Month is held every October to bring advocates and survivors together as a way of educating others and bringing domestic violence to an end. Domestic violence is an issue that can be particularly harmful for immigrant survivors. Often, violent offenders will use a partner’s lack of immigration status as a control mechanism to keep them in an abusive relationship. The availability of legal counsel and representation in communities and at advocacy organizations provides these survivors with the best opportunity to break themselves and their children away from situations of violence and manipulation.

CLINIC’s anti-domestic violence work centers on helping other organizations increase capacity to serve more immigrant survivors of violence who are isolated and living in rural communities. CLINIC has assisted over 65 anti-domestic violence nonprofit organizations in launching their own in-house immigration legal service programs. The three programs highlighted below are just a few examples of how CLINIC’s partnerships with anti-domestic violence advocates has reached immigrant survivors.

In Orange County, Calif., The Women’s Transitional Living Center, Inc., or WTLC, is providing free services to all and dismantling stigmas associated with reaching out for help. WTLC empowers immigrants to leave difficult domestic violence situations — immigrants like Jane. Jane moved to the United States from her native Togo, Africa, to marry her husband. The behavior of Jane’s husband quickly changed, and he began to trash their home, leaving for days at a time. Jane narrowly escaped after her husband attacked her while she was sleeping. She knew returning would put her life in danger, but her limited English and the rarity of her native language, Ewe, presented a barrier for seeking help.

WTLC connected Jane with their Department of Justice accredited representative and were even able to secure an interpreter who spoke Ewe. By meeting Jane where she was, physically and linguistically, the accredited representative was able to swiftly complete Jane’s Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, application. The representative took advantage of CLINIC’s VAWA toolkit and the Ask the Experts portal, available to CLINIC affiliates, to prepare for Jane’s adjustment of status. Jane secured a work permit and currently has her own apartment. “I did not feel alone here. I always had someone helping me through this exhausting journey,” said Jane. WTLC continues to be a point of support for Jane, ensuring that she will never be alone as a survivor.

The Shelter for Abused Women & Children provides a 24-hour crisis line, emergency shelters and housing in Collier County, Fl., for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Additionally, The Shelter’s immigration advocate provides legal services for immigrant survivors in conjunction with CLINIC, Legal Aid and pro bono attorneys. Delia, an immigrant from Mexico, is one of many who The Shelter was able to assist with legal services.

After settling in Florida, Delia met her husband, who was kind and caring, and they quickly married. Two months into their marriage, Delia’s happiness faded as her husband began to verbally abuse her, but she held onto the hope that his behavior would change. When Delia told her husband that they were expecting a child, he began to revert to his old behaviors and tended to her every need. But as the pregnancy progressed, he resumed his abuse of Delia and began to physically abuse her. Delia attempted to take her daughter, Evelyn, and leave, but her husband threatened to call immigration because Delia was not a documented immigrant. One night, the abusive behavior escalated, and their neighbors called the police. Delia told them that her husband had threatened to kill her on multiple occasions, and he was arrested. Delia and Evelyn sought a place to stay at one of the emergency shelters.

Delia worked with the immigration advocate and a staff attorney to assess her needs, including applying for VAWA and obtaining an injunction for protection. Delia felt empowered and confident that she could make a life for herself and Evelyn. Delia is now a permanent resident, working full-time, attending school and living independently with her daughter. The Shelter continues to support Delia as a survivor by providing her with bi-monthly counseling sessions. The Shelter described their partnership with CLINIC as invaluable. By obtaining DOJ Recognition and Accreditation, The Shelter can continue to provide a full range of services to domestic violence survivors.

Accessibility is a major roadblock to immigrant survivors of domestic violence, and capacity also hinders organizations from helping the most vulnerable in their communities. CM, a 55-year-old Colombian immigrant, sought help from multiple organizations and government entities before finally receiving help from Sierra Community House, part of the Family Resource Center of Truckee, Calif.

While visiting a relative in Florida, CM met her future husband who immigrated to the United States from Argentina. Despite her expired visa, this man asked CM to marry him and move to his home in Saint George, Utah. CM’s new husband began to sexually and financially abuse her. He forced her to work without documents at a friend’s restaurant, taking her paychecks as repayment for being CM’s petitioner. After one particularly abusive incident, CM fled to a fire department where they provided her with flyers, went to a police station where they told her to return home, and even visited a USCIS office where she was given more flyers and told to seek legal help.

CM ultimately returned to Florida to stay with her relative and continue searching for legal assistance. Not only pressured by her immigration status, CM felt that her presence at her relative’s home wasn’t welcome. CM’s pursuit of help was met with voicemails and responses that organizations were too busy or too full to help her. Finally, one of the flyers led CM to Tahoe SAFE Alliance, part of Sierra Community House and the Family Resource Center of Truckee, Calif. She was thrilled that a live person had finally answered her call and rapidly explained her situation. The organization flew CM to Tahoe, Calif., to reside in a safehouse while they worked on her case, specifically her VAWA self-petition. In fewer than three months, CM received her prima facie and a work permit. Able to work and support herself, CM was free to move away while waiting for her self-petition.

The absence of available immigration legal services, particularly at nonprofit, anti-domestic violence agencies, isolates survivors and allows abusers to further exploit them by cutting off their ability to seek safety. CLINIC, as the chief nonprofit in the United States transforming advocates into authorized legal representatives, strives to help organizations like those mentioned above receive DOJ recognition and accreditation and provide them with continued legal guidance. Domestic violence is an issue that affects people of all ages and genders, and CLINIC is proud to work alongside those in our network to serve and empower survivors.

With your support, CLINIC can continue to provide the necessary tools and training for anti-domestic violence organizations to serve immigrant survivors. Donate here.