LETTER: There are options for non-immigrant survivors of violence

Read Original article posted on Northwest Asian Weekly on November 27th, 2015

In 2015 women and children are still being forced into dark corners due to domestic violence. As a child survivor of domestic violence, I am all too familiar with the feeling that a certain violent incident was so bad that it can never get worse, and then a few days later, it does get worse. I was frightened by social stigma like “what will everybody think if my parents divorced…” Equally frightening, though, was the knowledge that my father kept a hunting rifle in his closet and he had never been hunting.

After 25 years of marriage, my mother made the brave decision to separate from my father, and break the cycle of violence that ruled our lives. It was certainly a cultural taboo in the South Asian community, but she stood tall and was transparent as to the abuse, my father’s constant philandering, and his relentless intimidation of women he identified as “weak,” including his own mother-in-law and other members of our family.

We were fortunate that we are U.S. citizens and my mother was a working physician. Thus our immigration status was not at stake nor did we require financial assistance from my father after the separation and subsequent divorce.

Unfortunately, many non-immigrant women remain in abusive relationships because they are vulnerable as to their immigration status and fear financial dependence on their abusers. Additionally, they may also fear law enforcement agencies, thinking that if they complain, they will be deported.

These women often feel that they have no options available to escape their abuser. As a U.S. immigration lawyer, I am here to tell those non-immigrant women that they have options.

This past month I have provided counsel to three non-immigrant women, each of whom communicated severe physical and emotional distress at the hands of their abusive spouses. Each of them shared with me their unfortunate circumstances: one was pushed down a flight of stairs, another choked in front of her children, and the third raped day after day. One client, a young South Asian woman, has not reported the abuse, as she fears losing her non-immigrant status in addition to backlash from her family who forced her into the marriage in the first place. The other two recently cooperated with police when their neighbors reported domestic disturbances and arrested their spouses for domestic violence assault.

Congress has enacted U Nonimmigrant Status (“U Visa”), to provide immigration protection to individuals like my three clients, survivors of domestic violence. The purpose of the U Visa is to aid law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of crimes of violence by providing immigration relief to non-immigrants who assist in the investigation or prosecution. In fact, domestic violence is just one of a list of crimes that qualify for U Visa protection. Other crimes include rape, torture, trafficking, sexual assault and kidnapping. The benefits of having a U Visa include employment authorization, protection from deportation, and eligibility for lawful permanent residency (“Green Card”).

In order to be eligible for a U Visa, the non-immigrant survivor (1) must suffer “substantial physical or mental abuse” as a victim of a qualifying crime; (2) must possess information about the criminal activity; (3) must help with the investigation or prosecution of the crime; and (4) must be a victim of criminal activity that occurred in the U.S. or violated a U.S. law. Non-immigrant survivors may also obtain derivative status for their parents, spouses, children and siblings.

Many non-immigrants are fearful that reporting domestic violence will result in removal from the U.S. or other negative repercussions. The U Visa program is available to protect non-immigrants from violence and encourage them to call law enforcement when necessary. If you or a loved one is facing this challenge you should contact a U.S. immigration lawyer.

Minal Kode Ghassemieh is a U.S. immigration lawyer who has focused her practice on non-immigrant work visas, family-based immigration and humanitarian forms of relief including U-visas and asylum.

She currently serves as Board Chair Elect of API Chaya, a non-profit that serves survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.