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Refugee and Immigrant Community

If a survivor of sexual assault does not have legal residency, they will most likely worry that the assault will affect their ability to remain in this country or will affect their attempt to become a legal resident. As a victim of a crime, they have very specific rights. However, immigration can be very complicated. As an advocate or other support professional, it will be very imperative to connect this survivor to an appropriate immigration attorney. Knowing the allies in your community will help your ability to support survivors dealing with immigration concerns.


Immigrant and refugee women share the risk of all women in the United States to intimate partner violence, but they experience increased vulnerabilities to its effects due to the cultural context in which they experience violence, their legal status, and barriers to accessing services.

  • The actual incidence of intimate partner violence is difficult to verify because it varies widely among communities, many incidents are unreported, and there is little specific data.
  • Women of all cultures, races, occupations, income levels, and ages are battered - by husbands, boyfriends, lovers and partners. (Surgeon General Antonia Novello, as quoted in Domestic Violence: Battered Women, publication of the Reference Department of the Cambridge Public Library, Cambridge, MA)
  • Around the world, at least one in every three women (34%) has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her lifetime. (Heise, L., Ellsberg, M. and Gottemoeller, M. Ending violence against Women. Population Reports, Series L, No.11., /December 1999)
  • Studies across ethnic communities in the US show that refugee and immigrant women are experiencing domestic violence at rates between 30% and 50%. (Violence Against Immigrant Women, The Roles of Culture, Context and Legal Immigrant Status on Intimate Partner Violence, by Anita Raj and Jay Silverstone)

Currently, there is no data available on the rates of sexual assault in refugee and immigrant communities. In general, 1 in every 6 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Since so few refugee and immigrant women report sexual assault to authorities, we estimate that this number is significantly higher.

CULTURAL AND SOCIAL FACTORS AFFECTING REFUGEE AND IMMIGRANT ADJUSTMENT IN THE US

The high rates which refugee and immigrant women experience domestic violence and sexual assault are attributable to many factors which also increase their vulnerability:

  • Cultural Adjustments and Trauma. Refugees and immigrants often come from war-torn countries. Many have endured mental, physical, psychological, and emotional trauma. They need the necessary coping skills to find ways to adjust to the new cultures. The lack of language proficiency, loss of social status and lack of extended families nearby can be contributing factors in the challenge of learning to survive and adjust to this new country.
  • Linguistic Isolation. Many refugee and immigrant women are linguistically isolated and cannot reach out to others because they do not speak English.
  • Social Isolation. As a result of displacement, women are often isolated from family and friends, so they have few social supports. In some circumstances, husbands actively isolate their partners to keep them from contacting others.
  • Economic Insecurity. It is difficult for many refugee and immigrant women to find jobs since they have little formal educational training and limited English proficiency. For those newcomers who also struggle with immigration status, finding employment may be impossible. For these reasons, refugee and immigrant women are very economically insecure and dependent on their husbands or partners for survival. With little or no money, their ability to try to escape the situation or to live independently is severely restricted.

BARRIERS TO HELP-SEEKING

In addition to their extreme vulnerability, refugee and immigrant women often struggle to seek help due to a number of barriers:

  • Community Alienation. Domestic violence and sexual assault are frequently normalized or regarded as a "family issue". Therefore, women do not pursue help fearing they will be stigmatized by or alienated from their communities. Often, religious values play a part in this process, prioritizing the unity of the family over the safety of the woman experiencing violence.
  • Service Accessibility. In many circumstances, domestic violence or sexual assault resources were not available in their countries of origin, so women do not know how to seek out services in the US. Services are often not linguistically or culturally accessible to refugee and immigrant women struggling with domestic violence and/or sexual assault issues. Mainstream shelters, for example, may not know about the vital religious needs of refugee and immigrant communities, so they may not provide appropriate foods or private space for daily prayer.
  • Fear of Deportation. Many immigrant women stay silent about their abuse because they fear deportation. Due to their very different legal statuses, refugees, legal immigrants, and undocumented immigrants have different rights in these situations.

Refugees bear a special status from the US government, allowing them to petition for legal permanent residence after one year in the US. Although victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are protected from deportation as legal permanent residents, those accused of domestic violence can be deported if convicted. Women often resist seeking help because they do not want husbands or partners to be deported.

Immigrants on spousal visas depend on their husbands for their legal right to be in the US. They can be deported without the relationship to their spouse. As a result, women do not seek help at the risk of alienating a spouse and losing their legal right to be in the US.

Undocumented immigrants can be deported for any crime, including misdemeanors, and this threat keeps many from seeking help from authorities.

To protect against the vulnerabilities of non-citizen immigrant women who are battered, Congress introduced the Violence Against Women Act. Under this act, spouses and children of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents (LPR) may self-petition to obtain lawful permanent residency independently. This allows certain battered immigrants to file for immigration relief without the abuser's assistance or knowledge, in order to seek safety and independence from the abuser. Unfortunately, the provisions under VAWA are only available to women who are married to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.

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Information in this section is contributed by Refugee Women's Alliance (ReWA)

Reviewed: December 12th, 2014