Approximately 5.2 million undocumented immigrant women live in the United States. Without legal status, most of these women do not have permission to work or get driver’s licenses, and do not qualify for many of the social services reserved for citizens. Many immigrant women face compounded intersectional hardships due to the interplay of their undocumented status with other facets of their lives, such as gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, or race.
Being undocumented puts women at risk for physical manifestations of stress related to the threat of detention and deportation, is affiliated with limited access reproductive health care, and leads to an increased likelihood of experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault. Perpetrators of violence against undocumented women sometimes attempt to retain control by threatening to report their victims’ immigration status, and undocumented women may be unsure of how to get help. Describing an abusive relationship wherein her boyfriend threatened to have her family deported if she broke up with him, one young undocumented women explained to me, “I had no idea that you could get a restraining order and be okay and be protected. I just didn’t know. I had no idea where to seek help.” A recent survey of battered immigrant women showed that 22% of victims cited fear of being reported to immigration officials as the primary reason for staying in a relationship with an abusive partner.
There are some legal protections for undocumented victims of abuse, but even when victims are aware of these protections, they may fear that their involvement in the pursuit of legal action against their perpetrators may lead to their own detention or deportation. In cases where interaction with authorities may require revealing their immigration status, undocumented women may feel they have to make a difficult choice between pursuing justice or staying safe.
Watch: Between Worlds: Immigrant Women and Domestic Violence (Penn Law 2013)
Donald Trump’s election and actions against immigrants have led to more uncertainty for undocumented immigrants and, in some cases, have persuaded immigrant women to stay quiet in the face of violence. The New York Times reported a “sharp downturn” of reports of sexual abuse among Latinos across the nation since the election. In Colorado, four undocumented victims of violent physical assault who had begun to pursue action against their perpetrators decided to drop their cases for fear of deportation when they learned of Trump’s first executive orders on immigration. Denver Attorney Kristin Bronson explained, “Without victims willing to testify, we’ve had to dismiss those charges and the violent offenders have seen no consequences for their violent acts.” Unfortunately, the fear of legal punishment for immigrants who report gender-based violence is not unfounded. In February 2017, an undocumented woman was arrested at a courthouse in El Paso, Texas where she was filing a complaint against an abusive partner.
Listen: “Fear of Deportation Spurs 4 Women to Drop Domestic Abuse Cases in Denver” (NPR March 21, 2017)
Protecting undocumented women from discrimination and abuse requires heightened awareness, community-based resources, and immigration reform. The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence maintains a list of organizations where individuals can get involved to support victims and prevent the abuse of undocumented women.
Roberta Villalon, Violence Against Latina Immigrants: Citizenship, Inequality, and Community (2010)
Josephine Fong (editor), Out of the Shadows: Woman Abuse in Ethnic, Aboriginal and Refugee Communities (2010)