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Help for Battered Immigrant Women - 2002-11-01


English Feature #7-33891 Broadcast November 4, 2002

Immigrant women in the United States who find themselves in abusive situations in their home can turn to a variety of legal and social services for help. Today on New American Voices, Leslye Orloff, a lawyer and the director of the Battered Immigrant Women Program in Washington, D.C., talks about some of the unique problems immigrant women face, and some of the remedies that are available to them.

Leslye Orloff says that almost 60 percent of immigrant women who are married or were married when they came to this country have been victims of domestic abuse – a rate that is somewhat higher than the rates for American women generally. One of the reasons for this, Ms Orloff says, is that U.S. laws give men control over the immigration status of their spouses – that is to say, the man usually receives the visa, and the wife and children come as dependents.

“Immigrant factors – the stresses, the economic problems, the cultural issues – don’t cause the abuse themselves. What those conditions do is create barriers that make it harder for victims to get help. They act to keep or to lock immigrant victims in bad relationships that are violent for longer than many U.S. women remain.”

Immigrant women are often reluctant to report their husband to the police or other authorities. The reasons vary: sometimes it’s because of their limited language ability, sometimes the fear of being ostracized by their ethnic community. But more often, Ms Orloff says, an immigrant woman fears that her husband will retaliate by refusing to process her immigration papers, and she’ll be deported.

“So what’s important, what I want to say to people, is that you can call and access domestic violence services without regard to immigration status. And every domestic violence program in this country must as a matter of federal law provide help to anyone, without regard to immigration status, or they lose their federal funding.”

Many immigrant women don’t know where to begin looking for help. Leslye Orloff says there are a number of ways of going about it.

“Immigrant women who are living in communities with organizations within the immigrant community that they trust, I recommend that they go to that. It might be a church, it might be a social services agency, it might be a legal services agency. Generally, if there is a language barrier, the advocate from that organization can go with the victim to a local shelter, and help her access services that she’s entitled to receive. There’s a national domestic violence hotline that anybody can call, and they can access interpreters in all languages and have professional people who are available that can answer questions as to where to find resources in your community that are trained to work with victims of domestic violence. Whoever you know and trust, start there. Sometimes it might be a local police officer that you know, and he’ll put you in touch.”

Immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence can turn to all of the services available to battered American women, Leslye Orloff says, but they also have other options.

“There are support groups. In terms of the legal remedies women can get custody, child support, they can call the police for help, they can go to shelters, they can get transitional housing, they can get food from food banks, their kids qualify for food stamps. So there’s that. And then in communities around the country there are starting to be women-to-women support groups, where immigrant women in the community are helping other immigrant women think through the issues of domestic violence and try to get up the gumption to decide whether they want to access the legal system.”

In her 20 years as an advocate and activist, Leslye Orloff has dealt with hundreds upon hundreds of cases of battered immigrant women. She says that the incidence of abuse is no greater among immigrants from any one country or culture or faith, than any other.

“Every culture, every religious group has people who are violent in it. And that’s true in American society, it’s true in other cultures. Which culture somebody comes from might affect what excuses the abuser will try to use to justify his violence. But under U.S. law, and looking at our social service systems, our systems are blind to that. Because it’s not a question of how he justifies it, it’s a question that battering, you know, either committing physical violence or extreme mental cruelty against your spouse or children in this country is illegal, and it’s a deportable offense. So if a non-citizen beats his wife, he’s basically signing his deportation order – if he gets caught.”

Leslye Orloff, a petite, dark-haired woman in her forties, is herself a child of immigrants. Her father was born in the city of Poltava, in Ukraine, and almost all her forbears, she says, came to this country either from Ukraine or from Russia. She says growing up in an immigrant milieu was a powerful influence on her decision to devote her energies to helping immigrant women.

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