Fear of deportation adds to plight of immigrant domestic violence survivors in Sacramento

This restaurant is helping victims escape domestic violence

Members of My Sister's Cafe speak about the company's efforts to offer culturally competent aid to domestic violence victims at their downtown Sacramento location on Tuesday, August 27, 2019.
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Members of My Sister's Cafe speak about the company's efforts to offer culturally competent aid to domestic violence victims at their downtown Sacramento location on Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

Three to four years ago, Lalita went furtively to the leasing office of her home in Sacramento and, in tears, asked if she could borrow the phone to dial the National Domestic Violence hotline.

Hearing her recount her plight, the staff member told her to move her belongings to the office as she waited for help to come.

All the shelters she called were full. But they directed her to My Sister’s House.

At the organization’s emergency shelter, Lalita slept as she hadn’t in years: soundly and for as long as she needed.

Rejie Baloyos, employment and immigration program manager at My Sister’s House, recalled Lalita refusing to eat or talk when they first met. She had a constant headache.

“You forget to sleep, you forget to eat, you forget who you are,” Lalita said of abusive relationships. But slowly, and with meticulous support, she regained her sense of self.

An immigrant who had entered the United States on a dependent visa from Asia, Lalita asked to not be identified by her true name or exact native country because she fears her abuser will recognize her.

Survivors of domestic violence with temporary status in the United States are subject to legal, linguistic and cultural isolation. Stranded in a new country and sometimes barred from work authorization, they may be unfamiliar with things that normal people take for granted, such as opening a bank account, said Saima Husain, deputy director of South Asian Network, an organization that serves South Asians in Los Angeles County.

My Sister’s House works to address this deep isolation, offering interpreters for 19 languages and providing services ranging from shelter programs to counseling sessions. Established in 2001 to support Asian Pacific Islander survivors who often do not seek help from mainstream shelters, it is the only organization that provides culturally sensitive services to survivors in Sacramento.

To battered immigrant women with no community to turn to – and who may fear law enforcement due to their uncertain legal statuses – My Sister’s House is family. “They took care of me like a baby,” Lalita said.

From July 2018 to June this year, My Sister’s House has received a total of 2,968 crisis hotline requests.

For immigrants who arrive on K-1 visas as the fiancées of citizens – as well as other dependent visas for the spouses and children of individuals with legal standing in the U.S. – leaving an abusive relationship might mean losing their visas and the current visa programs. The U visa – granted to immigrants who work with criminal investigations on crimes such as domestic violence can impose a risk on immigrants to be deported even while they are waiting for their visas.

Data from My Sister’s house show that 21 percent of survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking who sought help from the organization from July 2018 to June 2019 were Asian – equal to the number of African or African American survivors.

Among Asian survivors, 28 percent are Indian. Large percentages of Hmong, Vietnamese, Filipino and Chinese survivors also sought help. The remaining 3 percent includes Afghan, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi survivors.

Family and gender expectations

Lalita described constant criticism from her spouse and his family. “They would body-shame me, saying I’m ugly, worthless, that I am fit for nothing and no one is going to give me a job,” she said. “And over the years, you start to believe their words.”

Psychological abuse, she said, runs deeper than physical abuse.

In Asian immigrant families, in-laws, parents and other family members may be entangled in domestic abuse, a contrast to the mainstream image of a single perpetrator abusing a single survivor, Husain said.

Husain noted that many survivors consulted their own family members before making decisions, and that family members tended to encourage survivors to stay in their abusive marriages.

Gender expectations also lead to victim-blaming, said Liang Ya-shu, a licensed clinical psychologist and the vice president of Central California Asian Pacific Women.

“We keep everything to ourselves, thinking that talking about it is a sign of weakness,” Lalita said.

Though patriarchy and victim-blaming aren’t unique to Asian cultures, immigrants may become particularly mired in silence out of fear that reporting their abuse will affect their legal status in the U.S.

‘If you report me, I will report you’

People who immigrate on dependent visas – visas for the spouses and children of citizens, lawful permanent residents, students and other individuals with legal standing in the U.S. – do not have authorization to work and are reliant on their spouse or relative for their immigration status. Abusers wield this legal insecurity over their dependents. Baloyos’s clients have had their passports confiscated by their abusers.

“The usual threat is, ‘If you report me, I will report you,’” said Thi Do, a Sacramento-based immigration law attorney.

This legal insecurity is exacerbated by social isolation for individuals – predominantly women – who immigrate for the sake of their spouses and have no other form of social support. “They know nobody. They have nobody to turn to,” said Thanh Foxx, a family attorney based in Sacramento.

Fearing the loss of their immigration status and possibly deportation, lacking social networks and wary of interacting with law enforcement, survivors bury their concerns.

Too high a price to pay

In reality, two legal pathways exist for battered immigrant women: the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, and the U visa.

Under VAWA, survivors of domestic violence may gain lawful permanent residence, whether or not they entered the U.S. legally, provided the abuser was a citizen spouse, parent or child, or a lawful permanent resident spouse or parent.

VAWA is a powerful tool, but limited in scope by its specificity about the source of violence. Abuse or violence from sources outside of those mentioned in VAWA – say, an unmarried or undocumented partner – is covered under the U visa for victims of a crime.

The term of the U visa is three years, after which visa holders may apply to become permanent residents.

Both VAWA and the U visa require the cooperation of survivors in helping law enforcement investigate crimes and apprehend perpetrators.

Paradoxically, therefore, being the victim of a crime – including and especially domestic violence – can offer legal pathways to immigration that wouldn’t otherwise exist. But, Do cautioned, “Nobody wants to be a victim of domestic violence to have status. It’s too high a price to pay.”

Individuals fleeing domestic violence from overseas could seek asylum in the U.S., after the Board of Immigration Appeals granted asylum to a Guatemalan woman fleeing domestic violence in 2014.

But this legal protection is currently being contested by the Trump administration: then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to get the ruling overturned in mid-2018, although a judge struck down his attempt.

VAWA, which became federal law in 1994, has been expired since January. It has yet to be reauthorized.

While the U visa is currently the only remaining pathway for the clients whom Do meets through other organizations or at the San Francisco Immigration Court, a revised ICE directive released Aug. 2 states that ICE has the authority to remove immigrants with pending U visa petitions, although USCIS will continue to process their petition.

Asking the right questions

With enough rest, Lalita started to analyze her condition and attended the programs provided by My Sister’s House, such as English and computer classes, as well as immigration counseling and legal support. Survivors learn how to budget money, seek jobs and train on mock interviews.

It is important for people to tap into survivors’ forms of cultural healing and resilience and really understand where survivors are coming from, Husain said. “You understand survivors on the basis of cultural, immigrant generation and religious background, and you don’t judge them on that.”

Baloyos said a key component of culturally competent services ranges from being culturally aware during therapy to provide the right food for survivors to connect. She said acupuncture or healing through art are good ways for API survivors to de-stress and channel their thoughts. Survivors can stay 30 to 90 days at shelters, and their stay at transitional housing is a typically a duration of six months to two years.

When deconstructing intimate partner violence with survivors from Asian countries, it is important to ask the right questions pertaining to the context, Baloyos said, such as whether gambling was involved, whether weapons – not guns, but voodoo, a tool in shamanism, or mashite, were involved.

Staff members also accompany survivors to attend services in mosques and churches or take a walk in the park. Some prefer a massage, a haircut, or even simply getting cosmetics for herself. The most important thing is to make them feel safe, Baloyos said.

Lalita recounted her story to Bee reporters with Baloyos by her side.

The Kate Spade bag by her feet – a beige and brown number without a clasp – was well-loved and well-used: She has been inseparable from it since she received it through a Secret Santa gift exchange during the first Christmas she spent with My Sister’s House, after she fled her abusive spouse.

“I lived in emergency,” Lalita said, “but my first Christmas gift was so special. I tell my family, ‘You don’t need to worry about me.’”

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Chalay Chalermkraivuth, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She reports on arts and entertainment, the LGBTQ community and social justice. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand.
Theodora Yu covers Asian American issues for The Sacramento Bee. She is a Hong Kong native and a Columbia Journalism School alumna with an interest in immigration and climate change issues.