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This article was originally published on March 26, 2010.

Sandra* is a 36-year-old college-educated wife and mother. She came to the United States and married her husband, Jinan, in 2000. At that time, Jinan* told her he was a U.S. citizen and that she would be eligible to become a citizen if they married.

It didn’t take Sandra long to learn that Jinan lied. But it was too late for her to save herself from an abusive marriage. They were already married when Sandra found out Jinan was in the U.S. on an employment visa, and he never pursued legal immigration status for Sandra as he promised. Instead, for nine years she endured physical and emotional abuse at his hands. The couple had a child, and Jinan’s abuse and threats grew in intensity. He repeatedly threatened to take their child from Sandra and call immigration authorities to have her deported. He would tell her that even if she wasn’t deported, the judge would not give her custody because she was here illegally. He even convinced her that if she filed for divorce he would ask the judge to enter an order barring her from any future marriages and that the judge would enter such a ruling.

During our initial intake with Sandra, we learned that she feared losing her child. Sandra came to Tahirih because she believed that the only way to truly protect her child was to obtain legal immigration status. At the same time, Sandra began working with the family law program to obtain custody of her son.

Sandra is not alone. Many clients report similar threats from spouses. But the fears also go beyond what clients are told by their abusers. Many clients’ fears are based on what they’ve seen or heard from other immigrants’ experiences.

Another Tahirih client, Maria,* insisted on remaining in the home with her abusive spouse until she received work authorization. Unable to work and with nowhere else to turn, Maria knew her only option for leaving would be to go to a shelter. Maria feared that if she fled to a shelter she would lose custody of her child simply because she was residing in a shelter. Maria knew a woman from her church that went through a similar experience and was convinced the same would happen to her. Upon further inquiry, Tahirih learned that Maria’s acquaintance from church didn’t speak English, while her husband did, and wasn’t represented at the custody hearing, while her husband was. Maria worked with Tahirih’s social services program to develop a safety plan while she remained in the home with her abusive spouse. Maria also worked with Tahirih’s family law program to seek advice on filing for divorce and custody. Despite reassurances from Tahirih’s family law attorney that she would not lose custody of her son if she relocated to a shelter, Maria refused to move. Tahirih helped Maria obtain work authorization, and she is now saving money to move to an apartment with her son.

Tahirih is well known for its immigration assistance of women and girls fleeing violence. However, as our clients’ lack of immigration status affects all aspects of their lives, Tahirih expanded our programs to provide family law and case management services to meet our clients’ pressing needs. Often, the women and girls we serve are not familiar with the American court and justice systems. They aren’t aware of all their rights and can be swayed to believe misconceptions or blatant lies about U.S. laws or their rights. Their vulnerability can have serious effects on their families and their futures.

Sandra’s and Maria’s stories represent just a small portion of the unique and complex challenges facing immigrant women and girls fleeing violence. Tahirih’s direct, holistic services help clients meet a vast range of obstacles, as they simultaneously work on their immigration cases to fully protect them from violence.

In addition, Tahirih engages in significant outreach to both immigrant community organizations and local government agencies to raise awareness of the needs and rights of immigrant women and girls fleeing violence. Finally, Tahirih works with several local organizations and pro bono attorneys to help our clients with other legal needs such as criminal, housing, employment, and international abduction cases. Only part of the journey to justice takes place in the courtroom, and this knowledge permeates our unique approach at Tahirih.

*Names have been changed to protect client safety and privacy.

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