Immigrants are particularly vulnerable because many may not speak English, are often separated from family and friends, and may not understand the laws of the United States. For these reasons, immigrants are often afraid to report acts of domestic violence to the police or to seek other forms of assistance. Such fear causes many immigrants to remain in abusive relationships.
This article will explain domestic violence and inform you of your legal rights in the United States. The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) requires that the U.S. government provide foreign fiancé(e)s and spouses immigrating to the United States information about their legal rights as well as criminal or domestic violence histories of their U.S. citizen fiancé(e)s and spouses.
Any victim of domestic violence — regardless of immigration or citizenship status — can seek help. An immigrant victim of domestic violence may also be eligible for immigration-related protections.
If you are experiencing domestic violence in your home, you are not alone. This article is intended to help you understand U.S. laws and know how to get help if you need it.
What are the legal rights for victims of domestic violence in the United States?
All people in the United States, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, are guaranteed basic protections under both civil and criminal law. Laws governing families provide you with:
- The right to obtain a protection order for you and your child(ren).
- The right to legal separation or divorce without the consent of your spouse.
- The right to share certain marital property. In cases of divorce, the court will divide any property or financial assets you and your spouse have together.
- The right to ask for custody of your child(ren) and financial support. Parents of children under the age of 21 often are required to pay child support for any child not living with them.
What to do?
Consult a family lawyer who works with immigrants to discuss how any of these family law options may affect or assist you.
Under U.S. law, any crime victim, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, can call the police for help or obtain a protection order.
Call the police at 911 if you or your child(ren) are in danger. The police may arrest your fiancé(e), spouse, partner, or another person if they believe that person has committed a crime. You should tell the police about any abuse that has happened, even in the past and shows any injuries. Anyone, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, may report a crime.
Likewise, if you are a victim of domestic violence you can apply to a court for a protection order. A court-issued protection order or restraining order may tell your abuser not to call, contact or hurt you, your child(ren) or other family members. If your abuser violates the protection order, you can call the police. Applications for protection orders are available at most courthouses, police stations, women’s shelters, and legal service offices.
If your abuser accuses you of a crime, you have basic rights, regardless of your immigration or citizenship status, including the right to talk to a lawyer; the right to not answer questions without a lawyer present; the right to speak in your defense. It is important to talk with both an immigration lawyer and a criminal lawyer.
If I am a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or other crime, what immigration options are available to me?
There are three ways immigrants who become victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and some other specific crimes may apply for legal immigration status for themselves and their child(ren). A victim’s application is confidential and no one, including an abuser, crime perpetrator or family member, will be told that you applied.
- Self-petitions for legal status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)
- Cancellation of removal under VAWA
- U-nonimmigrant status (crime victims)