On May 9, 2013, I participated in a panel discussion about immigrant victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking victims in rural Montana. The focus was on the remedies available to these victims, and issues surrounding lawyering and advocating for these groups. The other panelists were Laurie Grygiel of the Montana Legal Services Association, Cynthia Wolken of the Montana Human Rights Commission, and Representative Jenifer Gursky. The University of Montana Law School has made a video of this event available for all to view. (Click here to view the video.)
We have assisted numerous immigrant victims of domestic abuse with petitions under the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”), including both male and female victims. Abuse under VAWA can include physical violence or extreme emotional cruelty. In this panel, we discuss some of the common characteristics of these abusive relationships, the difficulties these victims can experience when law enforcement actually works against them, and we go into detail on one particular case study.
Immigrant victims of domestic abuse may enter the country on a marriage or fiancee visa, or enter the country illegally or overstay a different visa. They ultimately enter into a genuine, bona-fide marriage, which ends due to the abuse.
Abusive U.S. citizens often use their spouse’s immigration status as a way to exert undue control over them — isolating them from society, being physically and emotionally abusive, and threatening to have them deported if they ever report the abuse. Often, there are children in the household, and the abused spouse doesn’t dare risk being deported and leaving the children in the hands of the abusive spouse.
There are many ways that an abusive spouse can hold someone’s immigration status over their head as a constant threat. Often times, the spouse simply doesn’t file immigration paperwork, leaving the immigrant spouse in limbo. If the spouse entered on a fiancee visa, which requires that the marriage occur within 90 days, the abuser can deliberately delay the marriage and cause the immigrant spouse to become out of status. Or, even if they complete the process and get a green card, new marriages have a two-year “conditional” residence period. During that time, an immigrant spouse could lose her status if they get divorced or separated, giving the abuser undue control during that time period.
Sometimes, we hear of immigrant victims of domestic violence referred to as “mail order brides.” As we discussed at the panel, except in the most rare instances, the term is really a misnomer, as it is not representative of most relationships or the manner in which most immigrant spouses came to the United States. In addition, it has some offensive and sexist undertones. First, it implies that the legal burden to get a visa for a spouse is easy. That is certainly not true, as one who goes through normal immigration channels to obtain entry on a fiancee or marriage visa has to prove a genuine relationship, and this can often be difficult. In our practice, we have often dealt with legitimate marriage petitions that get wrongly denied because they don’t fit into traditional stereotypes.
The term also implies that the women are complicit in wanting to enter into fake marriages just for the visa. In my experience, the spouse has typically wanted to enter into a genuine and legitimate relationship, but the relationship ends through no fault of their own.
While there may be rare instances in which women have literally posed in magazines, been trafficked into the country, and ultimately sold into marriage, the broad usage of the term goes much farther than this limited scenario. Language is important because it shapes perspective and policy. The term is currently being used to malign legitimate relationships that may appear “suspicious” to someone based on their own preconceived ideas, but is actually just a form of stereotyping. Therefore, we encourage readers to either limit the term to the small instances where it would be correct, or simply stop using the term.
If you are the victim of domestic abuse, please contact us and we will try to help.