Commentary
By Helen Salita 10-20-2017

Navigating the U.S. immigration system has always been a challenge. But under the Trump Administration, those systems are demonstrably changing for the worse.

Today, 78 percent of attorneys and advocates say that immigrant survivors of domestic abuse are concerned about reporting their abuse to the police. They also claim a 62 percent increase in immigration-related questions from survivors.

These statistics, announced at an Oct. 17 panel on faith, deportation, and domestic violence hosted by the Interfaith Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violece, shed new light on fears within immigrant communities in the U.S. today — particularly among immigrant women.

There are two important ways for immigrant survivors of domestic abuse to get temporary protected status from the state — the U-Visa, and a petition under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). U-Visas are given to survivors of domestic, physical, or mental abuse, provided that they cooperated with the authorities during the investigation. Under VAWA, those suffering abuse can self-file a petition without the knowledge of their abuser, which helps maintain their safety.

But for the VAWA petition to be granted, the abuser must be either a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident, and the burden of proof falls on the survivor. And in order to receive a green card through the U-Visa or VAWA petition, survivors must first be fully aware of their options, and then work with and trust authorities — both increasingly difficult in a climate of fear and confusion around deportations.

This leaves many survivors to feel as if they have no other option but to stay with their abuser.

CLINIC Legal, a Catholic organization based in Silver Spring, Md., is one group focused on providing legal aid to immigrants. At the panel, CLINIC attorney Silvana Arista described their training programs to expand the number of non-attorney legal advocates to represent immigrants in court proceedings.

If and when a survivor manages to leave an abusive situation, they still face many hurdles in their immigrant community. Some fear that stories of abuse may threaten whatever positive image the community has worked hard to shore up in a time of fear and distrust. Aisha Rahman, Executive Director of KARAMAH, a group of Muslim women lawyers representing human rights, told a story of a Somali woman living in the small town of Lewistown, Maine. After counseling and support, she finally felt able to testify about the sexual assault she experienced, yet only two men in her community were able to interpret for her. During her testimony, the men translated her stories in much softer language (“He was mean to her”), and themselves repeatedly asked her questions like, “Do you really want to expose your husband? Do you really want to expose our community?”

Sexual violence is present in every community, and immigrant survivors of abuse face particularly grave barriers to speaking out. But helping survivors speak out against their abusers is crucial to their ongoing survival and well-being. It also helps to paint a more realistic view of immigrants — just like U.S. citizens, when they are suffering, they deserve to be able to trust in our authorities to help them.

Correction, 11/13: An original version of this article misstated the focus of CLINIC's training programs. The programs are for non-attorney legal advocates working at recognized non profit organizations, rather than attorneys.

Helen is the Campaigns and Communcations Assistant

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