FACE SPECIAL BARRIERS TO LEGAL REDRESS
1. Fear of Deportation
He came in and kicked me repeatedly. I was bleeding and I was starting to develop bruises. Finally, he calmed down and he left me alone. The beatings were getting worse. I began to feel that my life was in danger. When he would beat me, I never called the police because I was afraid of being deported. I thought the police were connected to Immigration. I have heard that they ask people if they have papers, and if they don't, they are turned over to Immigration. Even though my husband has a green card, he has refused to apply for papers for our children and me. After he beats me, he always promises that he will fix my papers, but he never follows through. I have lived in constant fear of his abuse and his reporting me to immigration.
Threats and fears of deportation are often the primary concern for many non-citizen or non-English speaking survivors who are seeking help fleeing from domestic violence. For undocumented women, fear of deportation is the primary reason that few seek help unless the violence against them has reached tragic proportions. Even battered women who do have lawful status may fear deportation if they report domestic violence due to incorrect information provided to them by their batterers. Unfortunately, in places where it is common for those affiliated with the legal system to inquire about individuals' immigration status, particularly of members of communities of color, victims of crime will not seek protection or redress from the justice system.
2. Distrust of the Legal System
The last time I tried to call the police, when I was still in Mexico, they didn't do anything because they consider it a family problem. My experience with the police is that they only protect the rich. When I tried to get help from them in the past, they would not help me.
According to a 1993 report from the United States Commission on Civil Rights, many immigrants come from countries in which the legal system works very differently from ours. In countries with a civil law system, the principal form of evidence accepted in court is signed, notarized, and sealed affidavits. Immigrants in the legal system in the United States often don't understand our common law system in which oral testimony is not only valid evidence, but the primary form of evidence presented. In addition, according to the Civil Rights Commission, many immigrants come from countries where the courts serve as an arm of a repressive government and do not function independently. They expect that persons who will win in court are those with the most money or the strongest connections to the government. Many refugees who have fled their native countries have associated any contact with the legal system with persecution and terror. In domestic violence cases, batterers will often manipulate these beliefs to get battered immigrant women to drop charges, or dismiss protection order petitions by convincing them that since the batterer is a citizen or has more money, or is a man and therefore his word is more inherently credible, he will win in court and the victim's life will become even more difficult.
3. Unavailability of Interpreters
One time, after my husband had beaten me severely, I fled the house with my children. I didn't know where to go, but I was terrified of being near him. I went to our church, which in turn called the local domestic violence program. When I got there, there was no one there who could talk to me. I had to wait for hours until they could find someone on the telephone to talk with me. I stayed at the domestic violence shelter for a few days, but decided to go back to my husband. I didn't have anybody I could talk to, and I felt very lonely. They said that I had to participate in their support groups, but I couldn't speak English, and I didn't have anything in common with the other women there. I didn't understand them and they didn't understand me.
When battered immigrant women do approach the legal system for help, the courts and law enforcement agencies - and even shelters - often have not implemented policies to ensure that domestic violence victims who do not speak English can communicate their complaints effectively, and can learn about their rights as domestic violence victims. Lack of ability to read or understand English impacts every part of the immigrant woman's encounter with the legal system: forms must be translated; hearings are meaningless unless an interpreter is present; and the woman may not understand court orders or when a violation has occurred unless an adequate, translated explanation is provided.
In addition, when non-English speaking women seek shelter or other services, their requests are often denied by shelter employees who prioritize the limited number of slots for women who can theoretically make better use of all shelter services. Even where members of the legal system and service providers want to serve communities of color, their services are underutilized because women of color may feel isolated, unwelcome or uncomfortable.
As our society becomes more aware of the problem of domestic violence, more and more non-citizen or limited-English proficient battered women and children are turning to the legal system for assistance. Although domestic violence traverses all racial, ethnic, religious, and economic lines, battered immigrant women face greater obstacles to escaping violence and getting help from the legal system. All people working in the legal system need to develop an understanding of immigrant women's life experiences and the barriers they face in order to provide true access to justice for these women.
Grace Huang is Staff Attorney for the Olympia office of Columbia Legal Services.