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The Politics of Women's Health

Abuse of Immigrant Women and Special Protections

For those of us who are immigrants or refugees in the United States, the experience of domestic violence is often made worse by numerous systemic barriers to getting help to end the violence. We face fears of deportation, language barriers, and lack of information about the help that is available for women experiencing domestic violence.

For example, immigrant parents whose partners are abusive generally win child custody awards even when the abuser is a U.S. citizen. When immigrants seek help, though, we often encounter a system that is not knowledgeable about our legal rights, that is insensitive to our needs, and that in the worst cases discriminates against us.

Furthermore, few advocates, attorneys, and justice system personnel understand the lethal danger of immigration-related abuse.1  Immigration-related abuse, including threats of deportation against an immigrant spouse or intimate partner, almost always exists only when physical or sexual abuse is also present.2  When immigration-related abuse occurs in relationships that do not yet include physical or sexual abuse, this factor may be a predictor that the lethality of the violence in the relationship is likely to escalate.3 

With the passage of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994 and its successors, access to legal immigration relief and other services for immigrant victims of domestic violence and other crimes has been greatly expanded. Immigrants who experience domestic violence can receive custody, child support awards, and protective orders from family courts. We can access a full range of services, including shelters, transitional housing programs, and other services necessary to protect health and safety. We can also receive health care from some community and migrant health clinics regardless of our immigration status.

 Some legal immigration options include:

  • VAWA Self-Petitioning

    This avenue is for immigrants who are married to or are children of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. It is not necessary for a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse or parent to have filed paperwork previously. This application allows immigrants who are experiencing domestic violence to file petitions for lawful permanent residency without the knowledge or cooperation of the abuser. If you are a parent of an abused child, you can also file for yourself and your children.

  • Battered Spouse Waiver

    These waivers are available only for immigrants who have conditional residency (a conditional temporary two-year green card) obtained through a case filed by the abusive citizen or legal resident spouse or parent. A battered spouse can petition to have the conditions removed and have the conditional residency changed to permanent residency without the abuser’s knowledge or participation and without having to remain with the abuser for two years.

  • Cancellation of Removal/Suspension of Deportation Under VAWA

     The cancellation of removal is for the battered spouse or children of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who are in deportation or removal proceedings. This allows battered immigrants and the immigrant parents of an abused child to close deportation/removal proceedings and gain lawful permanent residency without participation of the abuser.

  • U-Visa

    The U- Visa is for immigrant victims of crime who have suffered substantial physical or mental injury stemming from criminal activity. Immigrant victims of crime who participate in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity may receive legal immigration visa and work authorization which can then lead to lawful permanent residency. This remedy helps victims of a broad range of mostly violent crimes, but it was crafted to be especially helpful to immigrant victims of domestic violence, child abuse, incest, rape, sexual assault, and trafficking.

  • T-Visa

    The T-Visa is for victims who have been trafficked into the United States for labor or commercial sex purposes. To be eligible for the T-Visa, the applicant, if over the age of 15,  must comply with any reasonable request for assistance in the investigation or prosecution of the traffickers.    



1 Mary Ann Dutton et al., “Characteristics of Help-Seeking Behaviors, Resources and Service Needs of Battered Immigrant Latinas.” 7 Geo. Journal on Poverty Law & Policy 245, 271 (2000), p.259
2 Giselle Aguilar Hass et al., “Lifetime Prevalence of Violence Against Latina Immigrants: Legal and Policy Implications.” Domestic Violence: Global Perspectives 103-13 (2000) at 106-109.
3 Ibid., p. 109

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Written by: Leslye Orloff.
Last revised: March 2005

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