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Commentary: Domestic Violence, Crimes Against Immigrants Often Hide In Plain Sight

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Miguel tries to protect his mom when his father hits her, but he knows that when his parents think he is asleep, the shouting and hitting will start up again. He wonders if it is his fault. He considers running away from home, but that would mean leaving his little sister. He is also afraid of seeking help because, although he was born here, his mom came to this country without a visa. Miguel thinks his mom might get in trouble if anyone finds out.

Tina came to this country legally on a visitor’s visa. She didn’t intend to stay, but she fell in love with a U.S. citizen and got married. Her husband, Thomas, promised he would take care of filing all of the correct paperwork with Immigration so Tina could get her green card. But not long after they married, Thomas became abusive. He beats her, slaps her, insults her, and controls her every move. He isolates her from her family and friends. Tina is afraid to leave him. He refuses to file the immigration applications, and he constantly reminds her that without those papers, she is an “illegal” who has no rights. What Tina doesn’t know is that our country’s immigration laws provide relief for immigrant victims of domestic violence and other serious crimes that could help her to escape.

These are not isolated stories. Immigrant victims of domestic violence and other serious crimes are often hidden in plain sight in our communities. Domestic violence victims face countless barriers in trying to leave – shame, isolation, fear, loss of financial support, and lack of community awareness about the dynamics of domestic violence, to name a few. Immigrant victims may be eligible for immigration relief, but their abuser lies and manipulates them into believing they have no rights in this country. They may have a strong desire to learn English, but their abusers isolate them and monitor their every move, preventing them from attending classes.

Many groups in St. Louis are working to end domestic violence. At Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, we help ensure that immigrant survivors of domestic violence have equal access to the relief that is available to them under federal law. We see many clients become increasingly willing to work with law enforcement once they know what their rights are. It is an eye-opener for many of our clients to find out they have rights in this country as victims of crime, and that they will not automatically be deported if they turn to the police for help.

We know that the cycle of violence has ripple effects throughout communities. Survivors may not trust that their neighbors or police can help protect them. Friends and neighbors who want to help often don’t know how to do so, or worse, blame the victim for staying. At-risk individuals and families need access to counseling and support services to break the cycles of exploitation, violence and fear. It is critical that we raise awareness in our communities about how to identify signs that domestic violence is occurring behind closed doors. We need to understand the dynamics of domestic violence and offer victims a helping hand.

Rebecca Feldmann is a staff attorney in Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s (LSEM) Immigration Law Project.