By: Iqra Sheikh, Esq.*
Settling in America
Maryam  was born and raised in small rural community in Asia. In her country’s culture, the siblings of one family are often married to the siblings of another family, in order to strengthen family ties and preserve the family’s wealth. Women in the community were also taught that this system would also reduce domestic violence; for if a man were inclined to beat his wife, he would be reminded that her brother was married to his sister and could retaliate accordingly.
Neither Maryam nor her husband received any formal education, and both spoke the local ethnic language of their country, rather than the national language spoken by the elite. Nonetheless, Maryam and her husband immigrated to America, hoping as all immigrants do, to make a better life for themselves in the new world. For years they worked the night shift at a convenience store together; saving money to purchase their own franchise outlet, enabling them to accumulate wealth beyond their highest expectations. Despite their financial success, the couple remained childless; much to their sorrow and that of their families.
Cultural Norms Follow
Although their family overseas began pressuring Maryam’s husband to take a second wife, Maryam was shocked when her husband called her from a trip back to their home country and informed her that he had married again. By the time Maryam’s husband returned to America, his second wife was expecting their first child, while Maryam was still married to him.
Maryam’s husband, upon returning from his overseas trip with his second wife, had also changed in his conduct towards Maryam. He had become not only abusive but demanded that Maryam agree to a divorce and return to their home country. Maryam now found herself in a precarious position. She had no home to return to and lacked independent finances. As a divorced woman, she would also be shunned by her family and relatives.
Faced with a legal quandary of his own making, Maryam’s husband became physically abusive. His violent temper became increasingly physically dangerous, leaving Maryam with black eyes, a bloody nose, and broken limbs. With no one to turn to, she suffered in silence.
Maryam and her husband associated mostly with fellow immigrants from their home country; most of whom believed that spousal abuse was a private family matter. One learned from the old country experience, never to involve the authorities in family matters. Further, despite her many years in the United States, Maryam still had limited English skills. Relying on her husband to communicate with the outside world, manage their money, and secure their legal immigration status.
She had no grasp of her legal rights or the governmental options at her disposal, even if she had been able to communicate her needs in good English. Fearing for her life, Maryam fled her husband, staying with and relying on the charity of close friends. Her friends, however, similarly lacked the legal knowledge to assist Maryam or the language skills to advocate on her behalf.
Immigrant Women and Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is not only an immigrant problem, but immigrant victims of domestic violence—many although not all women—face unique hurdles and challenges that limit their ability to seek redress. While sensationalist stories of acid attacks and honor killings in immigrant communities often garner the most media attention, most forms of domestic violence go unreported. Statistics on domestic violence involving immigrant groups are incomplete and unreliable; even though more than ten million people a year, many of these are women, are victims of domestic violence in the United States annually.
Immigrants, however, experience higher rates of domestic violence than the native-born population; largely because the social drivers of domestic violence can be particularly prevalent in immigrant communities. Some studies show that nearly 50 percent of immigrant women have experienced domestic violence and that in some cities in this country nearly 50 percent of domestic violence homicide victims are foreign born.
Immigrant victims of domestic violence are soft targets because of their delicate immigration status and may also fear law enforcement because of their experience in the countries from whence they came. Many spousal abusers also threaten to deport their victims if they complain and keep the children as hostages. Economic dependency on an abuser, and the economic consequences that can follow if the abuser is arrested, are motivating factors that lead abused spouses to maintain their silence in immigrant communities. Especially if the immigrant women are in the country illegally.
Many immigrant victims of domestic violence and abuse may also have high threat perception from police officers; particularly if they come from countries where law enforcement is routinely abusive towards civilians or indifferent to sexual and gender-based crimes. This threat perception may be exacerbated by their fear of deportation. Spousal abusers often exploit these fears.
Unfortunately, some of these concerns may be warranted: in a 2015 study by the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) found that of 900 immigrant domestic violence and sexual assault victims, 88 percent of respondents said that police often or sometimes do not believe the victim or blame the victim for the violence and 83 percent said that police often or sometimes do not take allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault seriously.
Another 51 percent of them said police are often or sometimes biased against immigrants and 69 percent said that police are often or sometimes biased against women. Sixty-one percent of the respondents said that reporting domestic violence or sexual assault to the police could trigger criminal charges that could lead to deportation. .
Many immigrant women like Maryam are unaware that the U.S. legal system can grant them primary custody of the minor children, spousal and child support from their abuser, protection orders to prevent their abusers from threatening them, and the right to file criminal charges against their abusers, without fear of deportation. Fewer still know how to secure legal assistance from pro bono legal clinics and volunteer attorneys. Like Maryam, they are often at the mercy of their spousal abusers.
Needs of Immigrant Women
Immigrant victims of domestic violence, if they complain, also risk ostracism by their family and community. Volunteer counsel must be taught to grasp the social and cultural challenges of the immigrant abused spouse. Lacking such training, they can appear callous and indifferent to someone like Maryam. A grasp of the cultural diversities of our society is needed by today’s legal professional. Her needs also entail language and norm value hurdles that she needs to surmount.
Even if Maryam were to surmount many of these hurdles, she could face threats to her physical safety and that of her family back in the old country. Domestic squabbles have been known to spark blood feuds and violence between families. The legal challenges extend beyond staying in the country without being deported or having custody of the children. They can take on a sinister format that calls for the volunteer attorney to be sensitive not only to the client’s legal needs, but also the cultural barriers and challenges that the client faces. No easy task.
Lack of adequate translation services is particularly acute in the rural areas of this country, and victims may be forced to rely on their young children to act as translators, which can often compound the trauma children of an abusive marriage face. Concern of getting the children involved will sometimes muzzle a victim’s voice and stifle her ability to tell her story and seek redress from the authorities. Maryam, while having no children, nevertheless, faces many of the same challenges.
Although lack of access to justice can be debilitating for immigrant women who are the victims of domestic violence, legal assistance can benefit them greatly and reduce their abuse. As many survivors’ report, the most frightening part of domestic abuse for an immigrant spouse like Maryam is the reality that one cannot escape from the abuser or get help from the authorities. Especially like Maryam, a feeling that their life in America has turned into a nightmare. Leading some to commit harm to themselves and their children in response to the pressures that they face.
Volunteer attorneys have the power to not only provide legal assistance to their clients, but also to end the most frightening part of their ordeal by giving them control over their lives, and the option to leave the spousal abuser on their own terms; without fear of continued physical abuse. With legal assistance, Maryam can leave her abusive husband without fear, and before the vicious circle he has created can lead to the loss of her life. Her need is dire. Her American dream need not end in a nightmare. ______________________________________________________________________________
*The author is a Virginia lawyer who is both familiar with the challenges that immigrant women face, and who volunteers of her time to assist the victims of domestic violence within immigrant communities in the United States.
1. The name Maryam is fictional character. A composite of the abuses and suffering that many immigrant women undergo daily, because of norm-value systems that has followed them to this country.
Attorneys who, while not familiar with the plight of immigrant women, who seeks to assist, can find help in some of the resources listed below:
- Legal aid organizations including, but not limited to: Legal Services of Northern Virginia, Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia, Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, and Blue Ridge Legal Services.
- Immigrant legal service organizations including, but not limited to: Ayuda, Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, Hogar Immigrant Services, and Just Neighbors.
- Domestic violence organizations, including, but not limited to: The National Domestic Violence Hotline.