Domestic Abuse Fears Grow in Immigrant Communities

By Laura Tillman for the Women’s Media Center

Alabama has passed the most extreme of the new state immigration laws copying Arizona’s statute. Laura Tillman explores how they threaten victims of domestic violence.

Alabama’s new immigration law has abuse survivors and their advocates holding their breath. The law is the latest challenge to those trapped in abusive relationships who have concerns about either their own immigration status, that of their abuser or their children.

Alabama joins a growing list of states that have considered putting immigration enforcement into the hands of local police, though Alabama’s law has gone the furthest. The concept of locally enforcing federal immigration laws has long been thought risky, both because immigration enforcement requires complex training and because enforcing immigration law creates rifts between local police and immigrant communities, thereby making it harder for police to be effective in enforcing other laws—among them domestic violence protections.

“We need to publicize the unintended consequences these laws have,” said Tanya Broder, senior attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “They can look good in the short term, but the situation is much more complicated than that. Our law enforcement priorities are undermined when we try to locally take charge of an issue better handled on the federal level.”

The danger to domestic violence victims lies in the confusion surrounding these immigration laws as well as in their literal application.

Reluctant to Cry Out for Help

The aftermath of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 illustrates the unpredictability of state immigration laws. Even though the core sections of Arizona’s immigration law were blocked, domestic violence programs still reported a decrease in calls for help, according to Lindsay Simmons, advocacy coordinator at the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“The one culturally specific program for Latina victims in the Phoenix area has had about 15 empty shelter beds for a time, which is highly unusual,” Simmons wrote by email. “These laws… served to generate a culture of fear within minority communities.”

Now, advocates in Alabama are waiting to see what the impact of House Bill 56 will have on their comparatively small immigrant population.

“As the bill was originally written, it would have criminalized domestic violence services,” said Carol Gundlach, the executive director of the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Some of the extreme provisions—such as requiring school officials to ask students about their immigration status, and the section that made it criminal to harbor, transport or conceal an undocumented immigrant—have been blocked. But much of the law remains intact. One provision makes it a felony for an unauthorized immigrant to enter into a business transaction with the state of Alabama. Another makes certain contracts invalid between undocumented immigrants and other people, such as rental agreements. That means a domestic abuse victim escaping her abuser could be limited in her ability to be independent.

“The law hasn’t been fully implemented or interpreted by Alabama officials, which leaves us without clear answers regarding the risks that immigrants families may be subject to,” Broder said. Broder and Gundlach also stress that not only domestic violence victims who are undocumented will be affected.

“If the perpetrator is undocumented, many people would assume the victim wants them deported, but that’s often not true,” Gundlach said. “They want him to stop being violent, they don’t want to lose child support or see him deported and have the children go into the child welfare system. That’s a pretty strong deterrent to calling law enforcement.”

Anyone who lives with undocumented immigrants may also be hesitant to call police, even if he or she is a U.S. citizen. Someone who is in the application process for legal status might also be concerned about creating problems for their application by calling police. The list of possible manifestations goes on and on.

“It’s so complicated,” Broder said. “The kinds of decisions they have to make—what’s safe for them to do and when it’s safe for them to do it—it’s a delicate balance. We have worked with many police officers who know the importance of working with these communities to build trust, to work with immigrant communities in particular and domestic violence survivors in general. They can’t do that if people are afraid to call on them. But the idea of calling the police to help when the police could put you in detention, your children or your partner, those are impossible decisions.”

There are special visas available for domestic abuse survivors. The Violence Against Women Act includes provisions to help women married to a green card holding spouse to get on a path to lawful permanent residence if they are escaping an abusive relationship. The U visa also helps crime victims, including domestic violence victims, to get temporary legal status, work eligibility and a pathway to lawful permanent residence.

“Domestic violence survivors should know that there’s a network of people who are there to help and support them,” Broder said. “They are not alone.”

Related Stories:

Topeka May Make Domestic Violence Legal To Save Money

Representative Gets “Immunity” From Domestic Violence Charge

Immigration Makes Our Cities Safer. Even in Arizona

Each year, U.S. women experience 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-five percent of U.S. women will report being physically assaulted or raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). The Southern Poverty Law Center has also created a hotline, which can be reached at 1-800-982-1620, to educate Alabama residents on their rights.

This post first appeared on the site of the Women’s Media Center.

Photo by taberandrew via Creative Commons


Rita De Ferrary
Rita De Ferrary5 years ago

Domestic violence, machismo and resulting poverty is very prevalent in the countries where the majority of the illegal persons who make up this group come from. As is shown, this ads another dimension to the already overburdened social services that are stretched to their limits, and clearly is another reason for moving towards a solution to immigration reform. No one should be scared into not reporting domestic violence for fear of deportation, but how does a country enforce its laws? Are we a sovereign nation with laws...or not? People come here because they see a way to a better life, and they know even before coming here that having children is a ticket to free health care, housing, and other social benefits afforded to citizens. If the US extends these benefits a person would have to be crazy not to take advantage of them. Hospitals in high immigrant communities reveal upwards of 70% of maternity births are children being born to parents illegally in the country. Who's fault is that? Certainly not the immigrant. The US is at fault for automatic birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, most European countries do not have automatic citizenship, and not focusing on immigration reform and trade acts that have killed working opportunities in countries of origin. I can guarantee that if a living wage and work was available in many countries where immigrants come from, they would never leave because life there is much more pleasant with family and thei

Ed O.

Elaine wrote: Call it what it is-MALE violence against women. Timid terms like "domestic violence" "gender violence" or sexual violence dont NAME the perpetrators- MEN. To abolish an injustice the perpetrators must be named.

Richard Zane Smith

stars for Emma and Immigrant and Lilithe,

"You cannot currently send a star to Emma because you have done so within the last week." (stars for you anyway!)

a LACK of compassion seems to be considered strength for some on care2. Some of us who show any signs of compassion for the poor or desperately poor are sarcastically labeled "bleeding hearts" or "do-gooders" but its actually an unintended complement.
I'd much rather err on the side of generosity than greed.

I'm amazed at the "if its illegal it's wrong" attitude that exists. But i'll bet for many of these holding these views it doesn't apply to THEIR OWN lives...(example: driving over the speed limit or getting behind the wheel after drinking the legal limit.)

It seems to be a tactic used against the poor who don't have the luxury to share their stories. Too many americans have NO IDEA what it is to be truly poor.

Janice S.
Janice S6 years ago

Women should be allowed to seek help from domestic abuse without fear of being deported for doing so. We need to do some rethinking about our entire imigration system.

Lilithe Magdalene

Steve R. you look like you have some darker skin. And you tend to be pretty macho in your responses to articles - rather abusive at times from what I have read. Perhaps you need to "go home" to wherever your family was from and take those attitudes with you. Even if you have white skin from a British Isles or European heritage, maybe you should take your ancestral stealing, raping and pillaging a$$ back to where it came from. So much of this land we are occupying belonged to the Mexicans before we got here, so maybe we are the ones who need to leave.

We all need to get a bigger perspective on humanity, and land ownership, and compassion and get over this fighting "mine" and "us vs. them" mentality. The planet is getting to small for this closed hearted fear and BS.

And Richard and Immigrant would get second stars for their posts if I could give them.

Lilithe Magdalene

I love how people want to sacrifice compassion on the altar of an arbitrary law. Such heartlessness.

It does not matter what the "rules" are, or what language a person speaks or what color their skin or what laws they broke to try to make a better lives for themselves and their children - human beings are human beings and are deserving of ALL of our compassion and help in times of crisis and despair.

Some people's willingness on this thread to say "well f---k them, they broke the law" is just downright sad. I wonder what kind of thoughts you bombard onto your own being. Not very kind I am sure. I do hope your hearts open up and change.

Jay Hm
Immigrant I AM6 years ago


Are you comparing someone who has commited the ALL MIGHTY CRIME of crossing the border in search of a better life to say someone who is selling drugs out of their house or maybe pimping a few girls as the same "ILLEGAL THINGS" or "RISKY CRIME" where they dont want to give themselves away????????? Oh yeah im sure those two are exactly the same.. ppfffff

Jay Hm
Immigrant I AM6 years ago

JANE and BARNEY.... oops I mean Berny

Come on Jane... I thought we were friends... I didnt know you were soo full of hate towards immigrants... what if I told you I was an immigrant..?? would you still want me to dail your number then?? Its soo easy for people to hate and be angry towards a group of people or a class of people when you cant even for a second have the empathy to put yourselves in that persons shoes. Immigrants didnt ask for themselves to be born, especially in a poor country. If they have to RISK their LIVES to cross a desser to come to a country that hates them and cares more about a damn dog than a immigrant HUMAN and to be paid crap and have no rights do you ACTUALLY THINK that they LOVE it here and would want to be here if their stomachs werent growling and they REALLY needed to come if that was their best chance of surviving???? I really dont understand what some of you wierd ass people think...

Maitreya L6 years ago

Considering US laws are written by rich white people to benefit themselves and keep the "riff raff" appeased, I care less about what is illegal than what is right or wrong. Most people break the law constantly, because there are so darn many of them nobody can remember them all, and many of the laws are stupid. Illegal immigration is a complicated issue both morally and legally, but domestic violence is clearly wrong. We should not lose all compassion for people because they didn't obey all the laws.

Kathryn Battersby
Kathryn B6 years ago

A person's immigration status has NOTHING to do with being brutalized. We are our sister's keepers. Most of the abuse is targeted toward women and children and they MUST be protected!!! Our government and big business have created this "immigration" situation and are sitting back and laughing while we fight each other over someone's "status." Don't let their manipulation hinder your capacity for humanity and compassion.