Domestic violence is a crime of power and control. It can affect anyone, regardless of their gender, age, economic status or cultural background.
It can also affect people regardless of their immigration status.
As an attorney with the Survivors Immigration Legal Project (SIL Project) at Legal Aid Society, I work with one of the more vulnerable groups in America for domestic violence — the immigrant population.
Immigrant victims of domestic violence face a unique dilemma. They are often reluctant to report abuse because they don’t want to be deported — a vulnerability that their abusers are aware of and use to exert control.
The victims also may not understand the English language, may not understand what behaviors are considered abusive in our culture and, crucially, may not know the legal rights they have.
Legal Aid Society’s SIL Project offers free legal assistance in immigration matters for low-income survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault across 48 counties in Middle Tennessee. Because Nashville is a resettlement center, our immigrant population tends to be quite diverse, covering a wide range of different countries and languages, including a good number of Spanish-speaking clients.
We typically assist immigrant domestic violence victims with two legal options available to them: VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) self-petitions and U visas.
VAWA self-petitions make it possible for immigrants to become permanent U.S. residents if they are the victims of battery or extreme cruelty from a spouse or partner, parent, son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
U nonimmigrant status, commonly known as U visas, introduced in 2000, are statuses available to people who have been victims of certain specific crimes — including domestic violence. If a person has been a victim, has cooperated with law enforcement and can show they suffered substantial injuries, he or she can qualify for a U visa.
This visa allows the victim to stay and work in the United States and eventually get his or her green card.
The drawback to the U visa process is that it takes about five years for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to even look at a case. The agency has a cap on the number of new visas it can issue per year (currently 10,000), and the current wait list of cases is over 100,000.
Many clients come to me at their most despairing moments, but I have seen many of them persevere to achieve happy milestones in their lives.
I attended the wedding of a client who I helped in 2005. She came in with her 2-year-old son, fleeing a domestic violence situation. I later assisted her as she pursued U.S. citizenship. When I attended her wedding, I was struck to see her now-grown son. He has recently graduated high school and hopefully has a bright future in front of him.
When I see clients who have progressed from a vulnerable stage of their lives and get legal immigration status and then U.S. citizenship, when I see them succeed and become independent, productive members of society, it reaffirms to me why our services are needed. We help provide the stepping stones to stability and independence.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, we are here to help. Please call Legal Aid Society at 800-238-1443.
Chay Sengkhounmany is the lead immigration attorney of the Survivors Immigration Legal Project at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. Before returning to Legal Aid Society in May 2019, Chay was in private practice based in Murfreesboro.