The intersection of immigration & DV

Immigrant women in the U.S. are especially vulnerable to abuse, due to a lack of English skills, unfamiliarity with U.S. law and systems, cultural isolation, distance from friends and family, financial dependence, and fear of deportation.

In fact, immigrant women are twice as likely to experience domestic violence than non-immigrant women.

This is a vulnerability that abusive partners frequently exploit. An abusive partner may exert control by threatening deportation or by threatening to withdraw their petition to legalize the survivor's immigration status. An abusive partner may not allow a survivor to learn English, or threaten to take the children.

Many immigrant DV survivors do not realize that, regardless of immigration status, they too have rights in the U.S. As a result, immigrant survivors who experience domestic violence are less likely to reach out to the authorities to report their abuse.

At WIT, we support immigrant DV survivors in staying safe, reaching their goals, and living lives free from violence and abuse. We make sure that they understand their rights, and we direct them to legal resources - including walking nervous clients over to local immigrant-service organizations such as Nationalities Service Center (NSC) or HIAS PA and sitting with them through intake.

In the last few years, WIT staff have assisted over a dozen immigrant women in applying for special visas under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Our counselors write and submit immigration letters that document their client's abuse in extensive detail, and emotionally support clients as they reflect on and tell their story for their visa application.

The process of applying for a visa is intimidating, and clients often encounter an unsympathetic system - but our WIT counselors are trained to support them at each step.

"Getting a green card is getting a key to freedom," a WIT counselor says. "Working legally, going back to school, moving forward - all that begins with a green card. My client of 2 years is getting divorced and going back to school - thanks to her green card."

Gabrielle: an immigrant survivor

"I'm not the person I was when I met him. I was outgoing, I had an education, I had a plan for my future."

Gabrielle* is a 35-year-old mother of three American-born children. She met her husband, Albert, through friends in their home country. After more than a year of dating, she became pregnant with their first child and moved to Philadelphia.  She left her country, her family and friends and a stable and well-paying job with medical benefits. She was looking forward to starting a new life with him in a new country.

Initially, Albert offered to sponsor her and help her become a permanent U.S. resident. Gabrielle was thrilled as this would make it easier for her to find a job after having her first child. But gradually, Albert changed and he refused to sponsor her. He wouldn't allow her to get a driver's license, a car, or have a bank account. She couldn't apply for a job. He refused to provide medical insurance for her and their children. Things got worse when he even refused to take them for medical check-ups or emergency visits. The children had never been to the dentist or an eye doctor.

Everything she did upset him. He would verbally abuse Gabrielle and the children.  Gabrielle, as an undocumented immigrant, knew that she was at risk of deportation. Exploiting that, Albert threatened to report her to immigration and get her deported. During her pregnancy, he would accuse her of having affairs and would repeatedly tell her that the child she was carrying was not his child.  He made her feel like she was an embarrassment to him and his family.

Apart from verbal abuse, she was being physically assaulted. If they went out, he would punch her face and try to push her out of the car. Sometimes, he would purposely slam the car door on her hand.

Albert also refused to provide for them financially. Gabrielle sold her engagement ring in order to pay for their groceries, bills, and any emergencies that may arise. Albert's family was kind enough to provide them with a house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. But recently they were asked to leave, which meant they would have nowhere to go.

One evening, after being brutally hit by Albert, Gabrielle locked herself in a room and called the police. But by the time the police arrived, he was gone. Soon, she was granted a protection from abuse order which was valid for three years. She was referred to WIT where a counselor assisted her with writing a letter to Nationalities Service Center, documenting the abuse, which is an essential part of the VAWA self-petition process.

The counselor also assisted Gabrielle with safety planning and supported her in setting and reaching her goals. Now, she has a visa, sole custody of her children, and has relocated to her own apartment.  She is living separately from her husband and raising the children on her own.  She plans to continue working and provide her children with a safe, loving and supportive environment.

Meet a WIT Intern


What motivated you to intern with WIT?

Initially, I was searching for an internship in the field of social work so that I could get more experience and decide if an MSW in the future is right for me. I knew I wanted to work with women and LGBTQ populations specifically, and I was always aware of the huge impact of domestic violence in the lives of women. I chose to intern with WIT because of its focus on a feminist view of counseling and its emphasis on empowerment-based advocacy. 

What project(s) are you working on right now?

I am a native Spanish speaker, so currently I am working with the WIT Counseling Team to finish editing the multitude of Spanish-language documents for WIT clients. We're working to update the language, as the documents were translated years ago and other terms may be more accurate now. Also, we are trying to formalize the language of the documents. In Spanish there are both informal and formal ways of referring to another person, and we think that a more formal approach may be more comfortable and resonate more for Spanish-speakers of all countries and cultures. 

What do you hope to accomplish while at WIT?

My biggest hope is that I learn as much as I possibly can to help populations of women in need. What I've learned in a little over a month of training has been so eye-opening and has narrowed my interests even more. I hope to educate myself on resources available in Philly, and be able to empower the survivors that I speak to on the LifeLine. I'd like to be able to hone my speaking skills as well. 

What do you hope to gain from this internship moving forward?

I expect this internship to open up the world of working with women in all kinds of situations due to systemic injustices. Just the short time I've been training at WIT has narrowed my interests as to the populations I am interested in working with. I would like to explore ways to aid survivors in the LGBTQ, sex work, and substance abuse communities through outreach, education, and supportive services.