Domestic Violence and Immigration
I was 5 years old when I heard one of my parents frequent arguments end with a loud smacking sound. I had just walked in the front door after the school bus had dropped me off in front of my house from a day at kindergarten to the loud yelling and arguing of my parents, unfortunately something I had grown accustomed to. If you can imagine my father was well over 6 feet with a loud bellowing voice, my mother just under 5 feet. With frustration and anger my father struck my mother, leaving a bright red hand mark on the left side of her fair, Asian face. This was the first time I saw the expression of resentment and hate in my mother’s face for everything that led to that point. That act of violence shattered the facade that my parents had built up to try to hide the truth from me, that their marriage was a sham and in no way functional. There were deeply rooted problems within their relationship and after that moment my eyes were wide open to them. Later I would realize there were great amounts of psychological and emotional abuse in my parent’s relationship that would be directed solely towards me.
My father was an American born in the south, a victim of abuse and neglect by an alcoholic father who was void of most emotion, except anger and depression spurred by the bottle. My mother, the eldest of her siblings, grew up in third-world poverty with an extremely controlling mother. In 1977, my mother started receiving pen pal letters from my father. She became enamored with the idea of a man she had never met before, a man who promised to take care of her and give her a better life, more than what she could have ever imagined. About a year later when my mother was 23, she immigrated to the United States.
The man who wrote such beautiful words on paper was not reflective of the man my mother met when she came to the U.S. and in less than a month, the fairy tale was over. The stark realities of the deception, lack of respect and obsession over my mother’s every movement was too much to endure. My mother however, was fearful to leave my father with the domestic violence taking place. My father, a man ridden with personality disorders, would admit years later that his choice to marry my mother was due to the amount of “submissiveness” women like her had for their husbands and the ability to “teach” them and make them become what he wanted.
Unfortunately the story of my parents is not unique. It bares many similarities to the stories of many immigrants who find themselves in relationships where domestic violence is present. One thing that remains consistent however, as with many instances of domestic violence, is there is one person that seeks to have control over the other who is thought to be weaker.
Women and men have shared with me their personal experiences, and those of other immigrants who were involved in domestic violence relationships that they knew. I began hearing similarities in the stories:
- Victims had little interaction with people other than their partner or lived in complete isolation.
- Victims were eventually embarrassed by their partner regarding their own language and culture.
- Communication decreased over time with their families in their homeland.
- Finances were controlled by the abusive partner.
- The partner threatened to have them deported or have their children taken away from them if they showed signs of fighting back or escaping.
So many of these stories also began sounding familiar as I realized my mother had faced the same problems with my own father.
Help for Immigrants
Immigrants who are dealing with domestic violence face many challenges unlike those around them because of language and culture barriers. Whether waiting for citizenship or seeking refugee status, immigrant victims of domestic violence do have rights and can get help to protect themselves from abuse. There are organizations like American Immigration Lawyers Association, The National Immigration Project, The Tahirih Justice Center, WomensLaw.org and specialty organizations like The Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, that help with direct services or referrals at little or no cost. It is important that immigrant victims get trained advocates to support and assist them in the proper steps to make themselves and their children safer, whether the abuse is physical or not. Additionally, the spouses and children of U.S. citizens can self-petition to obtain lawful permanent residency under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA also allows certain battered immigrants to seek safety and independence from the abuser by filing for immigration relief without the abuser’s assistance or knowledge .
Domestic violence is wrong, period. A person’s nationality does not exclude them from the physical and emotional pain that is inflicted from domestic violence. The best thing we can do as advocates is to remember the warning signs of abuse, stay informed about the issue, spread awareness and encourage our Federal immigration system to strengthen laws and distribute violence and abuse awareness materials, making them available in multiple languages to each person that comes to their offices and websites.
I am encouraged about the amount of work that has been done with this issue compared to my mother’s time as an immigrant but there is still much work to be done in raising awareness about the problem. If you see someone who displays signs of being a victim, offer them in confidence the resources they can go to for help. You will be surprised how far a bit of information and slice of humanity can go to help save a life and lead someone to new found freedom, hope and truly a much better life.
Lyn Twyman is a survivor and creator of the Courage Network, a community for domestic violence advocates and organizations with a world-wide goal in mind to draw organizations, advocates and individuals together.
Answers shouldn’t be hard to find.
We're here to help!