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Immigration Abuse in Domestic Violence

By Dr. Nusrat Ameen, Senior Director of Legal Services at Daya

Immigration abuse is very common amongst Daya clients since many are immigrants. Research indicates that immigrant survivors, especially immigrant women of color, experience 3 times the risk and vulnerability as compared to a survivor with citizenship. In the majority of cases, clients do not seek help due to fear, stigma, and community isolation. Often times, the client’s immigration status is tied to the abuser, making it hard to flee. Immigration abuse can take many forms and is used as a way to exert power and control by the abuser.

A common form of immigration abuse is when abusers threaten to have the victim deported without the children. Abusers keep important papers from their spouses or lie to them about the status of citizenship-related applications. They will also refrain from opening joint accounts or documenting the marriage to make it harder for the other to obtain legal immigration status. Amongst South Asian immigrants, transnational abandonment is another common type of immigration abuse. In this form, abusers take advantage of immigration policies and lack of clear jurisdiction to abandon their spouses in the home country. Victims are coerced into visiting their home country and are abandoned there without immigration documents and money, leaving the victim unable to travel back to the USA. Abusers will then file for divorce and custody of children in the USA, falsely stating the victim abandoned the family. These women do not have the opportunity to represent themselves and protect their rights in court. They become passive recipients of whatever legal decisions their spouse can extract from the legal system.

Sana's story highlights this harsh form of abuse that often leaves the victim without any clear path to justice. Sana was a Daya client who had come to Daya to seek help with her immigration and custody case. The previous year, she went to visit her family in her home country with her husband and children. After two weeks her husband said she should stay a little longer with her parents while he takes the children back as their school was starting up again. Once he arrived in the USA, he stopped communicating with Sana. She eventually realized he had taken her immigration documents along with her passport. By the time she figured how to get a travel visa and come to USA, ten months had passed. When she came to Houston and went to the children's school, she was served with divorce. She lost the primary custody of the children as the court would not displace the children. Sana was distraught and couldn’t understand the US legal system and asked, “Why did I lose my children’s primary custody without my fault?”

So what can be done? Legal advocacy, resources, and representation matters in these cases. Daya provides access to legal advocacy and resources to all of our clients. In the past, Daya has assisted clients who received a travel document from the Consulate at the home country. Once they are back in the USA, we help with establishing their legal rights along with custody, visitation and property division through family law. Daya also helps clients obtain permanent immigration status through Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

In cases where women are abandoned overseas, they have far less access to legal recourses and financial resources. Some abusers tend to abandon their spouses in the home country specifically to thwart their efforts to find justice and assert their economic rights. South Asian Women’s Organizations (SAWO) in the USA have dubbed transnational abandonment as the emerging face of violence against women in a globalizing world. However, the mainstream movement in the U.S. often believes that this situation does not meet the parameters of domestic violence. There is still much work to be done.

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