Women who are immigrants to the United States and are abused by their spouses are excluded from public assistance under the 1996 welfare law. Economic survival is the second major concern of immigrant women in abusive relationships after fear of deportation, according to immigrant advocates.
Two bills before the House of Representatives would provide a safety net of benefits to help these women achieve economic independence. The Battered Immigrant Family Relief Act and the Women’s Immigrant Safe Harbor Act would amend the 1996 welfare law. Under the bills, battered immigrant women would be eligible for public benefits if they have filed a petition for legal immigrant status with the Immigration and Naturalization Service or already have been approved. The bills would remove the five-year ban on public benefits imposed by the 1996 welfare-reform law for certain groups of immigrants.
Public assistance programs for low-income families include Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income. Battered immigrants would also be eligible for transitional housing under the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Victims Housing Act now before the House of Representatives (Psychiatric News, June 7).
Several organizations that provide services to members of ethnic minorities across the country support the bills, including Ayuda Inc., which serves Latin-American women; the Asian (Women’s) Self-Help Association (ASHA), which serves women from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Bangladesh; and the Multicultural Therapeutic Intervention Services (MTIS). These organizations, located in Washington, D.C., are staffed by women with ethnic backgrounds similar to those of the clients they serve and provide support, counseling, and referrals to social and legal services.
Amelia Missieledies, M.S.W., a native of Ethiopia, owns and operates MTIS, which serves immigrant families in Washington, D.C. She specializes in treating West Africans (people from Nigeria, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Ethiopia) who have been traumatized by all kinds of violence including domestic violence.
"Public benefits—especially SSI and food stamps—would help battered clients leave abusive relationships," said Missieledies in an interview. Most battered clients would rather stay in the United States because of educational and economic opportunities. Moreover, some of them may face political persecution if they return, said Missieledies.
Anuradha Sharma, ASHA’s executive director, said in an interview, "Public benefits would help over half the women we served last year who came here on H4 visas because they married permanent residents or U.S. citizens."
She continued, "They prefer to stay in the United States where they can have a life of their own and regain their self-esteem. Back home, they typically receive little support from their families and society. Being divorced and abused are often viewed as shameful and the victim is blamed."
Mariana Perez, a social worker with Ayuda Inc., said in an interview, "Economic resources would allow women who work night shifts cleaning offices to spend more time with their children instead of paying more than half their salary for babysitters."
The legislation before the House builds on the protections included in the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 2000, a broad law that prohibits interstate sex trafficking and violence against women.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who re-introduced the Battered Immigrant Family Relief Act in February, sponsored several protections for immigrants included in the 2000 legislation. A major provision eliminated the legal requirement that battered immigrant women had to return home to finalize documents allowing them to work in the United States legally.
"Many Latina immigrants know that if they return to their countries, they are not protected from spousal abuse. A protection order in the United States doesn’t prevent the abuser from leaving the country and continuing to abuse the woman," said Perez.
The 2000 law also allowed battered immigrant women to file for their permanent resident status if they were divorced from a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, according to Nadeam Elshami, communications director for Schakowsky.
The 1994 Violence Against Women Act was landmark legislation for battered immigrant women married to permanent U.S. residents or citizens because it allowed them to file for legal immigrant status without spousal consent or participation. It also allowed them to include their abused children in the petition and allowed battered minors of their spouses to file their own petition for legal immigrant status, according to the law.
"Prior to 1994 immigration laws ensured that abusive citizens and permanent residents had total control over their spouse’s immigration status," said Leslye Orloff at the congressional briefing in March on stopping violence against women. Orloff directs the Immigrant Women Program for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which supports the legislation.
Women who come from developing countries often are conditioned culturally to put the family above individual rights and to minimize abuse. "There’s a sense among women in Latino culture that you don’t expose family problems, and the most important thing is to keep the family together," said Perez.
In West African cultures, women are viewed as the husband’s property and he can do what he pleases, said Missieledies. She recalled a Nigerian man she saw in her practice in Washington, D.C., who beat his daughter so badly that he broke several bones in her face. "The mother was so afraid about her own economic survival that she decided to return to him, but child and protective services removed the children from the house."
Sharma said that there is a lot of denial in the South Asian community that domestic violence exists. (South Asian countries include India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.) Women are concerned about bringing "shame" on their extended family, as well as shattering the American myth that South Asians are the "model minority community."
The idea of bringing shame and dishonor on one’s family was echoed by Sharifa Alkhateeb, director of a project designed to educate the Muslim community about women’s rights and domestic violence. "When you ask a Muslim woman why she doesn’t leave an abusive spouse, she is not just thinking of how it will affect her or even her nuclear family. She is thinking about the reputation of her entire extended family and her female relatives’ chances of marriage once the word gets out," said Alkhateeb at a recent workshop on domestic violence in Washington, D.C.
Since September 11, domestic violence has increased in the Arab Muslim community, and reporting of domestic violence has decreased, said Alkhateeb. She added that Muslims represent more than 90 different ethnic groups worldwide.
"Domestic violence has increased because the stress level has gone up for Muslims since the U.S. war on terrorism began after September 11. Muslims with relatives in Afghanistan have been quite worried about their safety. U.S. law enforcement officials have raided Muslim communities searching for terrorist-related activities without search warrants. This occurred in Herndon, Va., in March," said Alkhateeb.
"The feeling now among Muslims is they better stick together as a community. Women who are being abused don’t want to risk further demonizing the Muslim community by reporting abuse to the authorities, whom they don’t trust to keep the matter confidential," said Alkhateeb.
The text and status of the Battered Immigrant Family Relief Act (HR 3828) and the Women’s Immigrant Safe Harbor Act (HR 2258) can be accessed on the Web at http://thomas.loc.gov by searching on the bill number. ▪