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Domestic Violence: Immigrants Are Particularly Vulnerable

By Erica Rudolf, Staff Attorney at Ayuda

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit immigrant communities particularly hard. For immigrants who are experiencing domestic violence, it is causing an unseen crisis as people are forced to stay home. For someone in an abusive relationship, home is not a place of refuge and safety, but a place of violence and fear.

What is domestic violence? It’s a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship. It can take on different forms and includes physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, and emotional and financial abuse. The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project developed the “Power and Control Wheel”, a diagram used to identify the signs of domestic abuse in a relationship. These signs not only include physical and sexual violence, but also financial abuse such as not allowing a survivor to work, or emotional abuse such as isolating who a survivor talks to or where they go as well as threatening to take their children away.

The “Wheel” has been updated by the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence to account for the added difficulties immigrants face. The “Immigrant Power and Control Wheel” illustrates how abusers might further isolate an immigrant survivor by not allowing them to learn English or separating them from anyone else that speaks their language. Another challenge victims of domestic violence face from abusers are constant threats of being reported to immigration authorities.  Abusers may threaten to withdraw immigration papers and hide their victims’ passports.  Other threats include reporting survivors for working under the table when abusers attempt to control their finances. Finally, abusers may threaten to have the survivor’s children taken away by immigration authorities.

Despite these threats Ayuda has been able to help survivors obtain civil protection orders in DC and Maryland. A Domestic Violence Civil Protection Order is issued by the court and commands that the abuser not harass, threaten, or stalk the survivor. A civil protection order can also include a temporary custody provision and child support and an order that the abuser to vacate the home.

Abusers may threaten to withdraw immigration papers and hide their victims’ passports.

For example, Carolina* came from Central America with her child, her husband Ramon, and his parents. After the birth of their second child, Ramon began abusing Carolina. Ramon would yell at her because finances were tight with two children and caring for elderly parents. However, when Carolina found a job, Ramon would yell at her for constantly being out of the house. Ramon’s behavior escalated. Ramon began pressuring Carolina to have sex when she did not want to, telling her that it was her wifely duty. Ramon would threaten to have Carolina deported if she continued to refuse him. When Carolina brought this up with her mother-in-law, her advice was that Carolina should be more patient with her husband. When Carolina didn’t find support in her community, she turned to Ayuda.

At Ayuda, she was able to talk to a lawyer in her native language about her rights and options for breaking free from Ramon’s control and abuse. She learned that she could ask a court to issue an order, known as a Civil Protection Order, to protect her. She learned about the process for getting a protection order and what relief she could ask for in the order, such as asking that her husband not contact her at all or allowing her husband to contact her only by text for the sole purpose of discussing medical emergency’s regarding the children. Carolina chose not to have Ramon vacated from their home and Ayuda’s social services team was able to help Carolina find housing. Ayuda was also able to have the court enter an order for child support, regardless of her, her husband’s, or her children immigration status. Carolina is relieved to have escaped such a toxic environment and is now rebuilding her life.

Stories like Carolina’s are common and not all survivors recognize the signs of abuse. During Domestic Violence Awareness Month our goal is to bring to light abuses that may have been normalized and educate survivors that relief comes in many different forms.



*Name changed to protect client’s identity.

Erica Rudolf is a Staff Attorney in Ayuda’s Domestic Violence/Family Law Program. She provides legal representation to immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking who seek Civil Protection Orders and resolution in family law matters (divorce, legal separation, custody, and child support) at D.C. Superior Court. Additionally, she works with the D.C. and U.S. governments to ensure her clients’ interests are conveyed and honored in criminal cases. Erica also engages in community outreach and was appointed to the Crime Victims Compensation Program Advisory Commission. Before joining Ayuda, Erica served as an assistant state attorney for three and a half year in Miami, Florida. During that time Erica specialized in the prosecution and supervision of Domestic Violence cases. Erica earned her J.D. with honors from the University of Miami School of Law and a B.A. in International Affairs and Communication from Florida State University.

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