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Resources for Immigrants Experiencing Domestic Violence by Carolyn Bruce

July 6, 2020

By Carolyn Bruce

Domestic violence, including intimate partner violence (IPV), occurs throughout every country in the world. This violence is predominately committed by men against women. In the United States, nearly one-third of women experience physical or sexual abuse by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives (1). According to the current available research, this violence is not more prevalent (and may be less prevalent) in immigrant and refugee communities. Regardless of prevalence, however, the mental, physical, and emotional impacts of domestic violence remain as present and painful in immigrant populations as in any other group.

Many immigrant and refugee women are especially vulnerable to domestic violence and IPV due to  poverty, limited language proficiency, disparities in economic and social resources, potential social isolation from their communities, uncertainty over their legal rights, immigration status, and the general stress of adapting to new cultural and social structures (2). While reaching out for help can be immensely difficult and dangerous for any victim of domestic violence, the above factors create unique challenges for immigrant victims seeking help. 

Fortunately, legal, medical, and social programs exist that can help immigrant victims of domestic violence. The following services are available to immigrant crime victims, regardless of immigration status or documentation: emergency medical care; police assistance; criminal prosecution of perpetrators; community-based services necessary to protect life and safety; domestic violence and crime victim services; emergency shelter; protection orders; VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) funds; child custody and support; and public benefits for immigrants’ U.S. citizen children (3). 

Legal Options

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 and its successors have  expanded access to legal immigration relief. These legal services include:

VAWA Self-Petitioning

  • Applies to those married to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents
  • Accusars  must demonstrate the following: 
  • Victim of domestic violence
  • Relationship with U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident
  • Proof of residence  and where the abuse occurred.
  • Good faith marriage and good moral character

Battered Spouse Waivers

  • Available to those with a conditional residency (a conditional temporary 2-year green card).
  • Applies when conditional residency was obtained for the accuser  by their abusive citizen or legal resident spouse or parent.

Cancellation of Removal/Suspension of Deportation Under VAWA

  • Covers battered spouses or children of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who are in deportation or removal proceedings.

U Visa

  • Intended for those   who have suffered mental or physical injury as a result of the crime.
  • Covers a wide range of crimes, including victims of domestic violence that are not currently covered under VAWA provisions. Also covers victims of incest, rape, sexual assualt, female genital mutiliation, trafficking, and a number of other crimes
  • Designed to provide relief to undocumented immigrants who are victims of crime

T Visa

  • Applies to victims who have been trafficked into the United States for labor or commercial sex purposes

The Battered Women’s Justice Project has created an extensive guidebook for assisting  victims of domestic violence, including advice for advocates and volunteers working with immigrant women. Their guide also includes a greater explanation of the legal services mentioned above (4).

Shelters and Programs

Battered immigrants are eligible for battered women’s shelters funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) provides much of this federal funding and does not include restrictions on immigrants. Additionally, in most cases, other HHS-funded programs serving victims of domestic violence are available to immigrants. Some programs, however, have eligibility criteria such as income. 

This HHS fact sheet on domestic violence provides further information on these policies (5).

Domestic Shelters has an extensive database of nearly 3,000 shelters and programs offering help in almost every region of the United States, as well as most regions of Canada. To find services near them, users can simply enter their zip/postal code into the Domestic Violence Shelter Search Tool (6). Users can refine their search to display only listings with 24/7 hotlines, emergency shelters, and/or programs and shelters offering a specific language. Alternatively, users can search by state or province for programs/shelters. Domestic Shelters provides a city-by-city breakdown of services within each state or province, as well as statistical information about the various types of services available and the percentage of Spanish-speaking services.

Many immigrants experiencing domestic violence do not feel safe reaching out for help or support. The National Domestic Violence Hotline understands this fear and recognizes that many abusers use their partner’s citizenship status against them, particularly if their partner is undocumented. However, The hotline stresses that regardless of one’s citizenship status, there are options available to help immigrants experiencing intimate partner violence. The hotline provides a clear explanation of undocumented immigrants’ rights when reaching out for support (7). While immigrants do not need to disclose their citizenship status in order to receive services at a shelter or help from law enforcement, the hotline recommends that immigrants review their rights before taking action. They also suggest seeking counsel from a lawyer and researching how your local law enforcement has handled previous cases involving undocumented victims of crime. 

Medical Assistance Programs

The National Immigration Law Center has compiled information about medical assistance programs for immigrants in various states (8). The NILC explains that immigrants already have access to federally funded Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) if they are otherwise-eligible “qualified”  and entered the U.S. before August 22, 1996, or if they have held “qualified” status for at least five years. Certain groups of immigrants, including refugees and “humanitarian” immigrants, veterans, and active-duty military along with their spouses and children, can receive Medicaid and CHIP without a five-year waiting period. The NILC has created a table describing each state’s policies for providing health coverage to additional groups of immigrants (9). 

According to the NILC, domestic violence survivors  are considered “qualified”  so long as they meet the following requirements:

 Spouses and children with a pending or approved (a) self-petition for an immigrant visa, or (b) immigrant visa filed for a spouse or child by a U.S. citizen or LPR, or (c) application for cancellation of removal/suspension of deportation, whose need for benefits has a substantial connection to the battery or cruelty (parent/child of such battered child/spouse is also “qualified”)

Survivors of trafficking who meet the following requirements are also considered:

Survivors of trafficking and their derivative beneficiaries who have obtained a T visa or whose application for a T visa sets forth a prima facie case. (A broader group of trafficking survivors who are certified by or receive an eligibility letter from the Office of Refugee Resettlement are eligible for benefits funded or administered by federal agencies, without regard to their immigration status.

The above-mentioned HHS fact sheet on domestic violence provides detailed information about the eligibility of battered immigrants for Medicaid, TANF, and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) benefits, how battered immigrants can qualify for these benefits, and how receiving these benefits may impact the immigration status of battered immigrants (10). The HSS also explains which immigrants are eligible to self-petition under VAWA, as well as whether battered immigrants need to provide Social Security numbers in order to receive TANF, non-emergency Medicaid, and Medicaid expansion SCHIP benefits. 


While women are statistically more likely to experience domestic violence, it is important to remember that anyone can be affected by domestic violence, regardless of gender. Although some of the above-mentioned resources and information were published by Battered Women’s Justice Project, gender is not a criteria for accessing these resources.

If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence, know that you are not alone. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for anyone affected by abuse and needing support. Call the Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or if you are unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474 or log onto thehotline.org. If you are in an emergency situation, please call 911.

Additional Information and Resources

Learn About FVPSA (Family Violence Prevention and Services Act)


60 Resources for Supporting Immigrant and Refugee Communities


Resource Sheet For Immigrants


Works Cited

  1. Family Violence Prevention Fund, Intimate Partner Violence in Immigrant and Refugee Communities: Challenges, Promising Practices and Recommendations. PDF file. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: March 2009. https://safehousingpartnerships.org/sites/default/files/2017-01/IPV_Report_March_2009.pdf
  2. Family Violence Prevention Fund, Ibid.
  3. Battered Women’s Justice Project, Assisting Immigrant Victims of Domestic Violence: Advocate’s Guide. PDF file. https://www.bwjp.org/assets/documents/pdfs/assisting_immigrant_victims_advocates_guide.pdf
  4. Battered Women’s Justice Project, Ibid. 
  5. Office for Civil Rights. “Domestic Violence Fact Sheet: Access to HHS Funded Services for Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence.” HHS.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, November 30, 2015. https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/special-topics/national-origin/domestic-violence/index.html
  6. “Domestic Violence Shelter Search Tool.” Domestic Shelters. Theresa’s Fund, Inc., 2020. https://www.domesticshelters.org/help#?page=1
  7. Eleanor. “Help! I am Undocumented and Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence: What Are My Rights When Reaching Out For Support?”. National Domestic Violence Hotline. May 9, 2018. https://www.thehotline.org/2018/05/09/help-undocumented-experiencing-intimate-partner-violence-rights-reaching-support/
  8. “Table: Medical Assistance Programs for Immigrants in Various States.” National Immigration Law Center. June 2020.  https://www.nilc.org/issues/health-care/medical-assistance-various-states/
  9. Table 3: Medical Assistance Programs for Immigrants in Various States. National Immigration Law Center. PDF file. June 2020. https://www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/med-services-for-imms-in-states.pdf
  10. Office for Civil Rights. “Domestic Violence Fact Sheet: Access to HHS Funded Services for Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence.” HHS.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, November 30, 2015. https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/special-topics/national-origin/domestic-violence/index.html

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