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"Identifying Barriers: Survey of Immigrant Women and Domestic Violence in the D.C. Metropolitan Area,"

by Nomi Dave & Leslye E. Orloff July/August 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Although the individual stories of immigrant women suggest a connection between immigrant experiences and domestic violence, very little in the way of hard data has been collected to quantify this connection. For this reason, Ayuda, with funding from PRRAC, conducted a survey between 1993 and 1995 on needs assessments and incidence rates of domestic violence among Latina immigrant women in the District of Columbia area. The primary purpose of this survey was to collect information that could be used to change public policy and laws to improve battered immigrant women's ability to flee their abusers. This research played a key role in Congress during passage of the immigration provisions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The legislative history of this act found that "many immigrant women live trapped and isolated in violent homes, afraid to turn to anyone for help. They fear both continued abuse if they stay with their batterers and deportation if they attempt to leave." This finding was buttressed by Ayuda's preliminary research showing that 71% of citizen or resident batterers have failed to file immigration petitions on behalf of their undocumented spouses.

Ayuda plans to publish data based on the completed survey by the end of 1997. The results of this survey will help battered immigrant women gain access to legal remedies and ensure that they are treated properly by the courts and immigration officials. Specifically, the research will be most useful in three key areas: (1) in negotiations with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on the implementation of VAWA; (2) in outreach and in training professionals working with immigrant women, including INS officials and immigration judges; and (3) in negotiations with the Department of Justice on the implementation of changes to welfare laws that explicitly grant access to some public benefits to battered immigrant women and children.

Profile of the Women Surveyed

The survey was conducted in person and in Spanish by formerly battered Latina women, who disclosed to interviewees that they had been battered. This process was designed to facilitate more accurate results regarding domestic violence experiences. The intent was to make the interviewees feel at ease, to assure them that their responses were totally confidential and to decrease their embarrassment in discussing these sensitive, personal issues.

The survey group consisted of 305 Latina women, 46% of whom are El Salvadoran. Other major countries of origin were Mexico. Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. 75% of the participants are between the ages of 22 and 38, and 80% have one or more children. 70% of the children were born in the U.S., and 45% of the women reported having children living abroad. 85% of the women have lived in the United States for more than two years, and almost half of them speak no English. 50% attended school for at least 12 years, and less than 5% have had no formal education.

Domestic Violence

Data revealed that 62% of the women reported physical or emotional abuse, the most prevalent form of which is physical assault (32%). Most abuse occurs weekly, and women who experience the most severe abuse reported experiencing it on a daily or weekly basis. Forms of abuse include assault with a weapon, sexual assault, threats to do harm and emotional abuse, such as public humiliation or being thrown out of the house.

Immigrant women are often victims of domestic violence because of their perceived vulnerability due to their immigrant status. In fact, 31% reported an increase of abuse with immigration, and another 9% reported that abuse began with immigration. Women suffering from emotional abuse reported being prohibited from learning English, leaving the house, having friends, attending school or finding a job. Thus, these women are unable to gain independence or form ties to their new country.


Significant reasons given for coming to the United States include fleeing violence in the home country (25%), fleeing domestic violence (9%) and improving economic conditions. Almost 50% of the group have some form of legal status in the United States, either citizenship, permanent residence or temporary protected status. Data on immigration status of spouses revealed that 65 % of the women's spouses have legal status in the United States. However, 71% of battered women with citizen or lawful permanent resident spouses reported that their spouse has never filed immigration petitions for them, and of those that did file petitions, delay times ranged from one to eighteen years. This is contrasted with the fact that 40% of citizen or permanent resident husbands promised to file immigration papers.

One-fifth of those surveyed responded affirmatively to a question which asked whether their spouse had ever used threats of deportation, or threatened to call INS, not file immigration papers or withdraw papers. One-fourth of the participants stated that immigration issues prevented them from leaving their abuser in cases of domestic violence. These statistics are particularly powerful given that 25% of the group surveyed have citizenship or permanent residency. Together, these data illustrate the correlation between domestic violence and the immigration status of women and their spouses. While these statistics are based on the overall survey population, further data analysis will examine more closely the responses specifically of women who reported battering or extreme cruelty.


Of the group of 305 women, only 18% reported use of public benefits, and when asked to rank the most important services used, fewer than 1 % stated public benefits. Additionally, those using services appear to be mainly citizens and legal permanent residents. Thus, the evidence counters the often mistaken perception that there is extensive use of public benefits by undocumented women.

The survey also shows that undocumented women are much more reliant on employment (70%), rather than on welfare benefits, as a source of income. Of the total group, 65% are working, and of these, 12% hold two or more jobs. Mean hourly wage is $5.82, the average amount earned per month is $800, and spousal mean income is $875. 67% of the women have one to three children in their households, and the mean monthly rent payment is $525. Of the money earned, many send $100 to $200 a month to help support people in their home countries. Thus, even though 62% of the women are working full time, and 9% are working both full- and part-time jobs, earnings are minimal. At work, 13% of women reported discrimination and/or abuse based on their immigration status, and 10% said they were not paid for overtime work.

The survey also shows that the main reason immigrant women remain in abusive relationships is because of money, and that the main barrier these women face after leaving their abusers is money.


The survey data reveal important information for service providers offering help to immigrant women, for training other professionals on cultural sensitivity, and for developing outreach programs to educate immigrant women about the laws and services available to help them. The women surveyed listed several barriers encountered in seeking services. These included fear of immigration problems (25%), not knowing that the service or help existed (23%) and not being able to communicate with service providers who did not speak Spanish (23%). 32% reported fear of deportation as keeping them or their family from seeking services, even from non-profit groups. The main services that women reported using are legal immigration services (28%), maternal and child health services (26%), English classes (20%) and medical insurance (20%). One-fifth of the women stated they have never sought services. The three most important services to the women are housing, immigration aid and employment training. In cases of abuse, the women tend to rely much more on friends or family members rather than doctors or services for help and counseling.

Much of the information indicates language barriers and the need for services and outreach in Spanish. For example, of women who called the police in response to domestic violence, the data show that 75% of the time the police spoke only English and could not understand the women. The information also indicates a distrust of government and fear of service providers. Women reported being worried that the government would take away their children, and 83% reported that they had never called the police for help in response to domestic violence and abuse. The women need to receive more information about the availability and existence of services, and the fact that they have access to them.


The survey results clearly illustrate that immigrant women are placed in a susceptible position and are subject to abuse because of their legal status. Although provisions of VAWA and other laws and services are designed to help, immigrant women are often unaware of the availability of assistance and are unable to seek it out. Hard data on their life experiences. provided here, will serve to clear the obstructions that prevent battered immigrant women from living safe and healthy lives.

Nomi Dave is a policy intern at Ayuda. Ayuda and the authors can be reached at 1736 Columbia Rd. NW, Wash., DC 20009, 202/387-0434.
Leslye E. Orloff is the founder of the domestic violence program at Ayuda, a nonprofit community-based organization providing the low-income, foreign-born population of Washington with legal assistance on immigration and domestic violence-related matters, and co-founder of the National Network on Behalf of Battered Immigrant Women. She was the primary drafter of the Protection for Battered Immigrant Women provisions of the Violence Against Women Act.

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