Immigrant Survivors of Sexual Violence

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Jenna Fisher, Training and Underserved Populations Program Coordinator and Mackenzie Coplen, Policy Intern.

Changes in America’s political climate have led some immigrant sexual assault survivors to become more reluctant in reaching out to service providers or law enforcement for help. This article provides advocates with information about policies that address immigration and sexual violence.

Immigrant survivors of sexual violence have the right to certain services which protect their life and safety per a statement issued in August 2016 by the Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). The state of Maryland also makes many resources accessible regardless of status. For example, Sexual Assault Forensic Exams (SAFEs) are free regardless of status or whether a survivor has reported to the police.

A few of the typical barriers preventing immigrant survivors from reaching and utilizing services are fear of deportation, fear of change in immigration status, misinformation, and unaddressed bias of responders. One effective way to combat these barriers is for allies and advocates to be proactive in making accurate information and local protocols easily accessible to these specific survivors.

Perpetrators, especially those with a legal immigration status or citizenship, may prey upon a survivor’s fear of deportation in order to keep them silent. Allies and advocates can help address this fear by helping survivors make an action plan for handling situations in which they are confronted about their status. The Catholic Legal Immigration Center created a guide to immigrant rights when interacting with law enforcement to assist with the safety planning process (Spanish version available here). In addition, the Immigration Legal Resource Center has created a list of rights and ways for immigrants to stay safe (Spanish version available here).

Common advice and guidance for immigrant survivors includes always having appropriate documentation if possible, avoid producing false documents, avoid fleeing from inquiring law enforcement, asking for a court-warrant if approached at their home, and memorizing family and legal service phone numbers, their criminal history, date of entry, and status at that time. It is also important for immigrant survivors to have a safety and care plan for any dependents in case they are separated. Furthermore, immigrant survivors should avoid resisting arrest, and allies can record and be a witness but should not interfere during an arrest.

Service providers should be aware that many immigrant survivors may have reservations about seeking help because of prior negative interactions with law enforcement or service providers. Training and information updates for service providers can help address these concerns ensuring their services are culturally sensitive and accessible across cultures and languages.  Maryland also has many options for culturally specific services (both related and unrelated to sexual violence response) throughout the state, including but not limited to: Tahirih Justice Center, Esperanza Center, ASHA for Women, and Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center.

Another key service to address with immigrant survivors of sexual violence is the possible need for immigration legal expertise and assistance. Immigrant survivors have many legal options including U-Visas, T-Visas, VAWA petitions, and more. Legal planning and options should be discussed with an immigration attorney. MCASA’s Sexual Assault Legal Institute (SALI) provides confidential assistance to immigrant survivors navigating the legal system. Despite changes in America’s political climate immigrant survivors in Maryland have access to victim services and justice. Allies and advocates can help survivors by staying informed and advocating for policies that protect survivors. MCASA recently signed a nation-wide letter calling DHS and ICE to protect immigrant survivors, and we will continue to advocate in Annapolis for survivors of all statuses. In our efforts to end sexual violence in Maryland, we must ensure that all survivors know that they have a right to services and justice.    

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