Undocumented and Experiencing Abuse: What Are My Rights?

Here at The Hotline, we know that many immigrants experiencing domestic violence do not feel safe reaching out for support. Reporting abuse can lead to unwanted media attention or even an investigation from U.S. border enforcement agencies that may result in indefinite detention and/or deportation. If you are undocumented and experiencing abuse, it’s likely that your abusive partner is aware of your citizenship status, and may use this as a way to maintain power and control over you.

Regardless of your immigration status, know that there is hope and that there are options available to support you and keep you safe. Prior to taking action, it can be helpful to know your rights, seek counsel from a lawyer who specializes in the type of immigration assistance that you are needing, and research how your university and/or local law enforcement agency have handled cases involving undocumented victims of crime in the past.

Know Your Rights

Even though immigration laws are constantly changing, it’s important to know your rights. You always have the right to stay safe and you do not need to disclose your immigration status in order to receive help. Additionally, it’s important to know that you have the right to access limited English proficiency assistance, emergency medical care, sheltershort-term housing, crisis counseling and intervention programs, soup kitchens, community food banks, protection under Title IX, assistance from law enforcement, and Crime Victim Compensation. You also have the right to file for protective orders, divorce, or custody of your children.

I don’t feel confident reading, writing, or speaking in English.

If you need language assistance, American Red Cross Language Bank offers free interpretation and translation services (you can fill out a request form here). If you need more immediate support to be able to contact a shelter, you can always reach out to The Hotline directly! We have English and Spanish speaking advocates available on phone and chat, as well as access to language interpretation services in over 170+ different languages when you contact us by phone.

Additionally, when you reach out to an emergency shelter, health clinic, or law enforcement for help, you have a right to interpretation and translation services. If you are declined limited English proficiency services, that is considered discrimination. If this happens, you or a close friend (not at risk of deportation) can file a complaint online at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights website.

I need medical assistance, but don’t have health insurance.

Federal law mandates that any hospital receiving government funding must provide care for all patients needing emergency medical care until a patient is stabilized. This law covers all individuals regardless of immigration status and does not require proof of citizenship or insurance. So, if you are undocumented and experiencing abuse and go to the hospital, you have the right to not answer questions about proof of insurance or citizenship.

However, emergency medical care can be expensive. If you need more affordable options, it may be helpful to reach out to National Association of Free & Affordable Clinics, which offers free services to all individuals at any of their 1,200 clinics nationwide. There are also community health centersCVS Minute ClinicsPlanned ParenthoodGay Men’s Health CrisisLGBTQ-centered health clinics and Trans-centered health clinics that offer inclusive, free, and/or low-cost healthcare options.

Keep in mind, each state and medical facility may have different family violence statutes and mandatory reporting laws. If you are concerned about the possibility of an investigation by police, it can be helpful to review your local state statutes and/or healthcare facility’s mandatory reporting guidelines prior to seeking medical attention.

I heard shelters don’t serve undocumented immigrants.

The myth that shelters don’t provide support to people who are undocumented and experiencing abuse is false. This  violates the Attorney General Order requiring that any services “necessary for the protection of life and safety” be provided regardless of immigration status. This requirement exempts all shelters and government domestic violence services from verifying immigration status as a condition for providing services. If a shelter or government domestic violence services program denies services to someone based on their citizenship status, they are in violation of this mandate, and may also be in violation of civil rights and fair housing laws.

Knowing that you are entitled to receive support does not make the process of reaching out and telling someone that you are experiencing abuse any easier. If you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed about taking the first step, it can be helpful to start small by reaching out to an immigration crisis hotline. Abuse tends to thrive in isolation, so it’s important that you try to connect with someone who can help keep you safe, make you feel secure, and does not judge what is happening or has happened to you.

I am an undocumented student attending high school or university.

If you are an undocumented student attending a high school or university that receives federal funding, you are protected under Title IX and the Clery Act when reporting abuse. If your school asks you to disclose your immigration status to administrators when reporting intimate partner violence or sexual assault, this is considered a form of intimidation and is in direct violation of the Clery Act.

We understand that reporting is not an option for everyone, especially if you identify as LGBTQ and are attending a university with Title IX religious exemptions. If you fear exposing your undocumented status, you may be able to file a complaint anonymously, either with the federal government or with your school. If you feel your university mishandled your situation, you have the right to file a federal complaint. Additional information can be found at End Rape on Campus or Know Your IX.

I am not sure if undocumented immigrants can file for custody.

Undocumented immigrants have a constitutional right to file for custody of their children. National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy ProjectLIFT Justice for All, and WomensLaw.org all provide information about the intersection of family court and immigration laws. Reaching out to one of these resources can be a helpful first step in determining your options.

I am afraid to talk to law enforcement or involve police.

You are not alone if you do not feel safe talking to law enforcement. However, it’s important for everyone, including undocumented immigrants, to prepare themselves emotionally for the possibility of interacting with police, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you may need to text 911, call police, or file a protective order. If law enforcement inquires about your status, you have the right to stay silent or choose not to answer. As we mentioned before, it can be helpful to always know your rights, seek counsel from a lawyer who specializes in the type of immigration assistance that you are needing, and research how your university and/or local law enforcement agency have handled cases involving undocumented victims of crime in the past.

U.S. citizenship is not a requirement to apply for Crime Victim Compensation (in most states).

If you are undocumented and experiencing abuse, or another violent crime, you may be able to qualify for Crime Victim Compensation. Crime Victim Compensation is a federal program that can help victims of violent crimes receive financial assistance to pay for medical expenses, lost wages, counseling, and/or funeral or burial costs. Each state and U.S. territory varies in eligibility requirements. However, U.S. citizenship is not a requirement to apply for compensation, with the exception of Missouri and Nebraska. If you’d like to talk more about the process of applying for Crime Victim Compensation, you can chat anonymously with an advocate at Victim Connect.

I don’t have the financial resources to pay for therapy.

If counseling is something that you feel would be helpful for you, feel free to reach out and ask! A Hotline advocate can direct you to local resources that may be available for individual professional counseling that are free or low cost. If you are seeking counseling resources specific to sexual assault, you can contact RAINN. They offer services in English and Spanish and also have translators available 24/7! Reaching out to an online support group can also be a great option if you work, have children, do not have transportation readily available, or just feel more comfortable in an online setting. Check out these additional resources:

For safety planning and help locating resources in your area, feel free to reach out to an advocate at 1-800-799-7233 or chat at www.thehotline.org.

Written by Eleanor, a Hotline Advocate

Answers shouldn’t be hard to find.

We're here to help!