Abuse & Immigration


No matter your beliefs, we should all be able to agree that relationship violence is not OK regardless of where someone comes from.

People who are undocumented, refugees or even naturalized American citizens can experience the same types of relationship violence as anyone else. Because of their immigration status, however, they face additional barriers to seeking help while those who use abusive behaviors have additional outlets to exert power and control.


Their Status is Used to Control Them

More than 1 in 5 Latina immigrant women that have experienced severe relationship violence also experience immigration abuse which is a series of behaviors that uses a person’s immigration status to control them.1 Contrary to the political rhetoric in recent years, people using abusive behaviors in their relationship often are not immigrants themselves.

Of Latina immigrants in an abusive marriage, 48 percent experience relationship violence from a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.1 This statistic extends to every other ethnicity as immigration status is used for control.

“Over 60 percent of our cases at APDC are where the person using abusive behaviors is a U.S.-born citizen and the survivor is an immigrant,” said Zonya Dawson, a victim advocate coordinator at the Asian Pacific Development Center in Aurora. “100 percent of the time the survivor’s immigration status was used as a control tactic.”

In many abusive relationships, this power dynamic is maintained by distorting immigration laws and refusing to allow a spouse or dating partner to pursue a path to citizenship. For example, less than 1 in 4 Latina immigrant women in abusive marriages ever have their immigration paperwork filed by their spouse.1


We Make it Hard to Leave

Although every person experiencing relationship violence faces numerous obstacles in leaving an abusive relationship, immigrants must overcome unique barriers. Many of these barriers, unfortunately, are our own creation as they are propped up by the country’s immigration policy.

“The immigrant community during present times is more secluded because of the political environment,” said Carmen Stevens, an immigrant advocate at Stand Up Colorado partner San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center. “The less contact undocumented people can have, the better to stay under the radar. This is an advantage to people using abusive behaviors since the victims are not willing to seek help.”

An estimated 1 in 10 immigrant women don’t leave an abusive relationship due to the fear of deportation. This fear also prevents them from seeking help as 1 in 4 immigrant women in abusive relationships don’t seek legal or social services.1 Even those that have sought help are being deterred by cases of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers who have detained relationship violence victims and their children in courthouses as they seek protection orders.

“We have 30 reliable reports of domestic violence victims backing out of their cases because they’re afraid they’re going to get deported,” Denver City Attorney and Stand Up Colorado partner Kristin Bronson told NBC News in October.


Other Barriers

The issues aren’t all a result of government policy and partisan politics, however. Many barriers facing immigrants in abusive relationships are inherent and can be used by an individual who wants to take advantage of this tool for power and control.

Support systems that most citizens can rely on are often absent for people who have immigrated from other nations. Many times, their entire social network of friends and family can still be living in another country, eliminating what is often the first outlet for many seeking help. This is often amplified by their partner’s refusal to allow communication with people from their home country.

Adding to this isolation is the language barrier. Of Latina immigrants in abusive relationships that don’t seek legal or social services, more than 1 in 4 report not doing so due to problems with English.1 This often is no fault of their own as part of the abuse they’re experiencing is not being allowed to learn the language.

Another challenge is the sheer number of cultures which are often lumped together. Not only is this done in the Latino community – which consists of people from 33 different nations – but with what is generally referred to as the Asian community which is made up of 52 countries.

“Different ethnicities have had different experiences with domestic violence,” Dawson said. “It is important when working with diverse groups that we do not bundle all Asians as one. Doing this will result in ineffective resources for each community.”


How You Can Help

Although some of these issues may seem too big to address outside of the voting booth, there is a lot that U.S. citizens can do on a daily basis that creates a safer environment for both people experiencing and using abusive behaviors to ask for help.

“We can educate the public about what is happening in the immigrant community, being more aware of the issues people are going through and being caring and compassionate,” Stevens said.

“The public also must be aware of some of the barriers keeping immigrant survivors from coming forward,” Dawson said, “including cultural norms, religious beliefs, the nature of the abuse, cultural pressures and lack of support.”

To learn more about abuse in immigrant relationships, check out the new Stand Up Colorado fact sheet on Relationship Violence and Immigrant Populations. If you know an immigrant who is using or experiencing relationship violence, you can help by visiting our website or calling the Stand Up Colorado Helpline at 855-978-2638.

1Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy. Characteristics of Help-Seeking Behaviors, Resources and Service Needs of Battered Immigrant Latinas: Legal and Policy Implications. (2000).

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