Rights of Immigrant Survivors of Violence

Protecting and Promoting the Rights of Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking

Beginning in 1990, federal law recognized the particular vulnerability of immigrant victims to abuse and exploitation. Since that time, Congress has created special forms of immigration relief for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, human trafficking, and other crimes through the initial passage and continued reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

These federal protections are intended to encourage immigrant survivors like Tahirih’s clients who may not have legal status, or who depend on the perpetrator of the crimes against them for their legal status, to escape violence, seek help, report crimes, and cooperate with the police without fearing that they will be automatically deported.

Notwithstanding the progress made through VAWA and TVPA in protecting immigrant victims, in recent years, other immigrant-hostile legislative proposals at the federal and state levels have threatened to seriously undermine these painstakingly elaborated federal protections. Tahirih works to preserve and expand our clients’ access to VAWA and TVPA protections and, more generally, to ensure they feel safe reaching out to the police for help.

Advocating for Improved Access to Federal Legal Protections

As a member of several national coalitions, Tahirih shares its perspectives from the direct services frontlines with members of Congress and other national policymakers considering proposals that could either impede or improve our clients’ access to VAWA/TVPA protections.

Often, legislation meant to restrict immigration generally can have an especially harsh and unjust impact on Tahirih’s clients, and can even bar them from accessing federal protections for which they would otherwise be eligible. Tahirih conducts swift outreach to educate policymakers about the unintended consequences and true human costs of these negative proposals. Tahirih also reaches out to policymakers to promote positive measures to expand VAWA/TVPA protections to help more immigrant survivors of crimes. For example, Tahirih has submitted public comments when the government has issued regulations regarding the T visa for human trafficking victims and the U visa for other non-citizen crime victims.

Ensuring Access to Police Protection

How Local Enforcement of Federal Immigration Laws Threatens the Safety of Immigrant Survivors

To learn more about Tahirih’s concerns, please see Jeanne Smoot’s article How Local Enforcement of Federal Immigration Laws Threatens the Safety of Immigrant Survivors. This article is reposted here with the permission of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (VSDVAA). It was originally printed in the VSDVAA journal Revolution in Summer 2008.

Tahirih leads national, regional, and local coalitions advocating to ensure that immigrant survivors can access help from state and local law enforcement without fear of being placed in detention or deported. Tahirih’s efforts include strong opposition to proposals to compel state and local police to do “double duty” as federal immigration enforcement agents, as well as vocal support for proposals to prohibit state and local police from asking victims and witnesses about their immigration status.

Immigrant survivors of violent crimes already face tremendous barriers to reporting crimes and seeking help, including:

But a fear of the possible immigration consequences is often the overwhelming deterrent that keeps immigrant victims from coming forward. Abusers take advantage of this fear to keep their victims silent, often threatening them with deportation or withholding immigration filings or documents that they need for legal status.

This is why Tahirih has fought hard against proposals to “deputize” state and local police or other local authorities with federal immigration enforcement duties. In our firsthand experience, these proposals cause an immediate and severe “chilling effect” to descend on immigrant victims, exacerbating all these barriers to reporting, condemning the victims back to the shadows and into danger, and undermining public safety for us all.

The terrible consequences of the “chilling effect” produced when victims fear that police are doing double duty as immigration enforcement agents are clear in just a few of the stories of women who turn to us for help:

“Maria’s” boss at her worksite pressured her repeatedly to have sex with him. She always said no, but his persistence was frightening. Maria told her boss’s supervisor, but he did nothing to help. In fact, things got worse, as the harassment turned into stalking and then one day, her boss masturbated in front of her. Maria ran away, but never told the police because she was afraid they would ask about her immigration status.

“Olivia” was sexually molested by a group of her co-workers. Because she did not have legal immigration status, she had never called the police.

“Alisa,” a seven year-old girl, was terrified as she witnessed her abusive father try to kill her mother – three times. Each time, afraid she would be deported and separated from her child (a fear fueled by the father’s own threats), Alisa’s mother refused to report the attempted murders to the police and warned her daughter to stay silent.

“Louise’s” husband, a law enforcement officer, habitually abused her. Among other things, he would wave his loaded gun at her. Louise did not call the police because she did not have legal immigration status.

Tahirih partners with organizations like the Immigrant Women Program of Legal Momentum, National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women, the National Immigration Forum, the National Immigration Law Center, and the National Council of La Raza to oppose federal legislation that seeks to entangle local authorities in immigration enforcement.

At the state and local level, Tahirih is a founding member of the “Virginia Alliance for Sensible Community Policing Efforts” (VA-SCOPE), a broad-based network that promotes a relationship of trust between police and immigrant communities and opposes local immigration enforcement measures. Under Tahirih’s stewardship, VA-SCOPE’s distribution list now reaches over 200 individuals and we have solidified a core membership of 25 committed organizations. As a leader in VA-SCOPE, Tahirih helps to:

2008 Agent of Change Award

For her leadership advocating on behalf of immigrant survivors in Virginia, Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih’s Director of Public Policy, was awarded the 2008 Agent of Change Award from the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (“Action Alliance”).

This award recognized several years of Tahirih’s advocacy around the state, but particularly acknowledged the great strides made in the 2008 Session of the Virginia General Assembly. Before the start of session, Jeanne was invited to present to the Virginia Crime Commission’s Illegal Immigration Task Force, and also gave testimony at a later hearing. Tahirih also presented at a statewide domestic conference convened by the Virginia Attorney General.

These influential opportunities laid critical groundwork for the 2008 Session, enabling Tahirih to join forces with the Action Alliance and legislative sponsors to draft and propose first-of-its-kind legislation in Virginia barring inquiry by police into the immigration status of crime victims and witnesses. This legislation passed several hurdles and was unanimously passed by the Senate; unfortunately, despite its broad base of support, the bill became mired in partisan politics at the end of the 2008 Session and fell short of final passage by just six votes.

Tahirih and the Action Alliance partnered again in the 2009 Session to reintroduce this important legislation. Despite significant gains, including attracting more bi-partisan sponsors and additional law enforcement and faith-based allies, the bill once more did not pass, as opponents maneuvered for its rushed consideration by an unfavorable committee. Tahirih remains committed to working in coalition and redoubling efforts to try to ensure the bill’s passage in 2010.


If you have questions regarding our efforts to protect and promote the rights of immigrant survivors of crime, please email policy@tahirih.org, or, sign up to receive our updates on Advocating for Justice.