This is the first in a special two-part series on domestic violence in immigrant communities by Feet in Two Worlds reporters. Read the second part here.
Angela walked into her daughter’s office to find 18-year-old Rocio on the floor, her childlike face swollen beyond recognition. Rocio’s boyfriend was kneeling beside her, the blood dripping from his arms onto her motionless body. The couple’s baby daughter wailed in the corner.
Angela screamed at the top of her lungs, summoning Rocio back to life. “Don’t leave, don’t leave, your daughter needs you!” she yelled. A barely noticeable blink of an eye gave Angela hope that she had come just in time.
On the day that Angela came to see Msgr. James Kelly seeking help for her daughter the waiting room at St. Brigid’s Church in Brooklyn was packed, mostly with women. Kelly is a priest and an attorney, and his parishioners – many of them immigrants from Latin America – often come to him for legal advice as well as comfort.
He sees about four to five domestic violence related cases every day. While he often tries to refer them to community-based organizations, many of the victims are more comfortable talking about their problems in the church. He often addresses domestic violence in his sermons.
Domestic violence is a sensitive topic in any community, but immigrants face added challenges, say activists who work with these groups.
The role of faith
Faith can be a challenge but also a great source of strength, says Purvi Shah, the executive director of Sakhi, an organization that works with South Asian women. “For immigrants, faith-based institutions are very important because they can be your link not only to faith but also to the rest of the community,” says Shah. Involving religious leaders is a way to raise support for ending domestic violence.
But shame over what is often seen as “airing the dirty laundry in public” may prevent many women from speaking out, says Indira Kajosevic, the executive officer of Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network, or Racoon.
A report published earlier this year by Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) found that in the context of what could be a hostile and discriminatory environment, there is tremendous pressure to “maintain a positive image of [the] community.” In other words, acknowledging domestic violence can be seen as detrimental to collective survival.
The few statistics available suggest that domestic violence is no more prevalent among immigrants than it is among the non-immigrant population. But foreign-born women are more likely to be victims of homicide related to domestic violence.
A study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that 51 percent of domestic violence-related murder victims were foreign-born females, while 45 percent were women born in the United States. The higher numbers point to the “failure and/or inadequate response by existing systems and institutions, such as law enforcement and the courts,” the FVPF report suggests.
Immigration status creates difficult choices for victims
Immigration status can be an especially difficult challenge for many victims. Approximately one fourth of Raccoon’s cases are undocumented migrants. An abusive husband can often use threats of deportation to keep his spouse in silence.
On the other hand, some women may be reluctant to report their undocumented spouses, fearing that their arrest will lead to deportation. For families that rely on a husband’s income for survival, this can be devastating.
Protections under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allow some women married to U.S. citizens or permanent residents to self-petition for residency. Others married to undocumented migrants may qualify for a U-visa if they’ve suffered “substantial physical or mental” abuse as a result of a specific form of criminal activity.
Rocio, who was born in Ecuador but has been living in the United States since she was three years old, may qualify for this visa. Her mother Angela, who like her daughter is undocumented, hopes that with legal status Rocio may be able to pursue her dream of becoming a midwife. Her daughter’s freedom from abuse, says Angela, came at great expense, but she needs to use it to build a better life for herself and her small child.
The process of obtaining legal status can be lengthy and complicated. The victims are sometimes stigmatized. “The couple of cases that got VAWA were made as a bad example in the community – these women put their husbands in prison,” says Racoon’s Kajosevic who works with immigrants and refugees from the former Yugoslavia.
“Do you think that goes over well in small communities?” she asks.
While abuse may begin in the home country, immigration is a traumatic event that can trigger violence. “Economic hardship is one of the stress factors,” Kajosevic said. Women are often more resourceful in finding a job. The role reversal can lead men to feeling helpless and trying to reassert their masculinity through violence. In former Yugoslav communities, alcoholism is also a significant, and contributing, problem.
Dr. Percy Andreazi works with men in Massachusetts’ large Brazilian immigrant community who are struggling with the stresses of immigration and may be at risk of committing acts of domestic violence. He started the intervention program after the brutal murder of 37-year-old Carla Souza and her 11-year-old son Caique in 2006. Mother and son were bludgeoned to death by Carla’s Brazilian-immigrant husband Jeremias Bins. The double homicide was a wake-up call for many Brazilian immigrants.
“The only good outcome of that is that we started to discuss this issue in the community,” says Andreazi. “We started to discuss the roots of violence and for example how the shock of immigration, the cultural shock and the difference between men and women when they come here,” may contribute to violence.
Andreazi says women are often more adaptable and get involved with their new community soon upon arrival. Men are not as communicative and can find themselves isolated.
Male allies are important to Sakhi’s work as well. Out of 731 new requests for assistance the organization received last year, 13 percent came from men calling for themselves or out of concern for their sisters, daughters or women friends in abusive relationships.
Both Rocio and Angela will need time to overcome their shared fears of shadows. Even though he is in prison, Rocio’s boyfriend is a constant presence in their lives, his image lurking around every corner, in the branches of the tree outside of their house.
Angela knows these are irrational thoughts, and while she tries to reassure Rocio, she herself need reassurance. She is hopeful that one day they will regain their lives. They have to – if for no other reason, then for the sake of her granddaughter. “Mi reina,” my queen, she says, her solemn face brightening as she brandishes a cell phone with the little girl’s photo.* The names have been changed to protect the victims’ privacy. You can read the first part of the series here.
Feet in 2 Worlds’ John Rudolph contributed reporting for this story.