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NY Clergy Address Problem of Domestic Violence in Immigrant Communities

Domestic violence is a serious problem across America, and around the world. It can be even more complicated in America's immigrant communities.

In Brooklyn, New York City's largest borough, where almost 40% of the residents are foreign-born, clergy-members came together to explore the connections between domestic violence and the immigrant experience. On a recent morning, an unusual mix of Brooklyn's spiritual leaders -- including ministers, rabbis and imams -- met with immigration activists and lawyers at the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center.

The hospital is located in a poor, ethnically diverse neighborhood that conference organizer Harry Schiffman said has perhaps the highest rate of reported domestic abuse in the state. "It's a health issue; it's a social issue; it's an economic issue; it's a child welfare issue and," Mr. Schiffman adds, "it's a spiritual issue!"

Brooklyn's immigrants hail from widely diverse parts of the world -- from Haiti and other Caribbean nations, to Russia and China and elsewhere. Yet these groups often share a mistrust of government and its social services. That is why new immigrants often turn first to their community's religious leaders when trying to escape violence at home.

According to Raluca Oncioiu, who directs the immigration services program of the Catholic Charities organization, it feels safer. "It is easier for a victim of domestic violence to open up to a member of their own community than it is for them to go to someone in law enforcement or even an immigration agency and talk to someone who is a stranger to them," she says.

Rabbi Michal Chazan, the chaplain at the Kingsbrook facility, says that domestic violence is a fact of life in every religious and demographic group he sees at the hospital and that clergy members should not ignore it.

"We are part of a community, and when something is bothering a member of the community, it has to bother us also," he says, adding "because the clergy member is the spiritual head of the community, he has a moral and religious obligation to try to stop domestic violence."

That's what this conference was about. Many of the religious leaders there were immigrants themselves, and so knew first-hand the economic and other challenges inherent in coming to a new land. They were also aware of how frustration can lead to violence.

However, what some may not have known is how immigration laws can indirectly promote domestic abuse, or prevent its being reported. This is especially true if the spouse or child being abused is an undocumented alien.

For example, under existing rules, the spouse of an American citizen or a permanent resident may apply for a "green card" identity document that can ultimately lead to U.S. citizenship.

Catholic Charities' Raluca Onciocou says that often, men will beat their wives or children, then threaten to deny them access to the green card process if that abuse is reported. "Or," she says, "a lot of the times he would turn on the children saying 'I'll take the children away from you. You'll be deported. You'll never see them again.'"

But domestic abuse does not have to be physically violent. Ms. Oncioiu recalls her first case of emotional abuse. "He never laid a hand on her, but he made her life miserable," she says. "He kept her in the house. She was locked up. She had no access to the phone. She had no money even to buy diapers, nor could she leave the house because he would take the key. He separated her from her family. She couldn't have friends over," which Ms. Oncioiu says is also a form of abuse.

If the abuse is criminal -- when, for example, a victim is held hostage as in the case described above, or a child or a spouse is assaulted -- the Brooklyn prosecutor's office gets involved. Assistant District Attorney Deirdre Bialo-Padin told the VOA that one of her biggest challenges is to let immigrants know that their immigration status will not be affected if they report abuse.

"It is a matter of law -- and public policy -- that if you are a crime victim I could care less if you are an immigrant or not or what your status is," Ms. Bialo-Padin said. She went on to explain that her goal is to hold accountable the person who has committed the crime, and to do what she can to help the victim access services, including legal assistance on immigration or family court matters. Ms. Bialo-Padin said she wanted to create a safety net for the victim "so that if and when she is ready to leave a relationship, we can help her on the road to economic and emotional independence."

The U-S Congress recently passed a law giving abused immigrants even stronger legal protections. If immigrants can prove that they have been physically abused, they may leave home, then apply for a green card independently of their abusers, thus affording them the same rights, public benefits -- and access to the American Dream -- as spouses in happy marriages.