If you are an immigrant to the United States, and you are a victim of domestic violence or rape, here are some suggestions we hope will help you.
1. You deserve help, and as a crime victim, you have a right to all the same crime victim services as any crime victim born in the United States. Please don't be shy about calling police, using women's shelters, calling rape crisis centers, applying for victim assistance funds, or going to restraining order clinics. You do not have to reveal your immigration status to receive these services, and it is very unlikely you'll be asked.
If you're still afraid to call for help because you fear that authorities might deport you, here's what you or a friend of yours can do. You can call police, for example, don't give your name, and say something like this. "I have a friend who is a victim of domestic violence. But she's afraid to call police because she's an immigrant in the United States and she doesn't have documents. If my friend calls you for help, and you find out she doesn't have documents, what will you do"?
But remember, we only suggest this so you can convince yourself that you won't be deported. In the past, it is true that some immigrant women had this problem. But today, agencies that give services to crime victims do not require that you are legally in the United States in order for you to receive crime victim services. In a recent informal survey we did of victim advocates around the country, not one reported that they knew of a case in the last five years where a woman with no documents was reported to the INS because she had called the police for help or sought other victim services.
2. What if the person abusing you says that he will call INS and get you deported if you call police or try to get help? It is very, very common for violent men to make this threat to immigrant women who are their victims. But it is virtually impossible for these men to carry out this threat. To our knowledge and experience, the INS does not act on calls from one individual who calls up to report that another individual is here in the United States illegally.
It's important to take men's threats seriously. But in the case of this common threat made by abusive men,- that they'll report you to the INS and get you deported,- the men simply cannot carry it out. So please don't let this threat stop you from getting help.
And if you're depending on your husband to petition for your green card and he's abusing you, or he's threatening to stop the petition if you leave him, remember that under U.S. federal law battered immigrant women have the right to leave the abusive husband and continue the petition on your own. The staff at battered women's shelters and rape crisis centers can tell you how to do it.
3. If you are still afraid to seek help, ask someone to make the phone calls for you, and to be with you when you deal with police and other crisis workers. In fact, it's a very good idea when you get help for domestic violence and rape to have someone at your side as often as possible. Having someone with you makes you feel safer, helps you remember information, and greatly reduces the risk that officials might treat you badly or ignore your needs. This is true even if the person who goes with you doesn't speak a word of English and doesn't have any idea how the system works.
4. What if you can't think of anyone who can go with you or who can make phone calls for you? It's very common for domestic violence abusers and men who rape to very successfully isolate you from human contact. This is especially easy for them to do if you are newly arrived in the United States. Here are a few suggestions for finding people who can help you make phone calls or accompany you to more help. Remember, you don't have to tell them everything in order to ask for their help. You can simply say things like "Will you call this telephone number for me and ask if they have somebody there who speaks Spanish"? or "I've been a victim of a crime and I need to go to court. Will you watch my children for the afternoon?" or "My husband is abusive and I need a ride to police."
Here are some people you should consider asking when you need help making phone calls, help with transportation, or help with an afternoon of childcare. Think about asking family members, friends, neighbors, your minister or priest, people at your church, co-workers, your children's teachers. Even if you don't know the person well, if your intuition tells you the person is kind, they will probably say yes, they will help.
And don't forget to call the telephone operator for the telephone number of your local rape or domestic violence center. These centers have crisis phone lines that operate 24 hours a day, and most of the time they have a staff member that speaks Spanish. Again, if you're afraid to call, ask a friend to call for you.
Insist on Good Translations
The courts have also ruled that in order to guarantee equal protection for everyone public agencies must provide adequate translation for people who don't speak English. This means that when you use or need the services of public agencies such as police, courts, and victim assistance centers, you have a right to an interpreter.
High quality translations are especially important for victims of violence against women for many reasons. Your immediate safety depends on the officer having a full understanding of what you're saying. In addition, your statements to the police are the central evidence in the criminal case, and they must be accurately reported. And because it's so important that you feel completely free to tell the officer everything, police should not use other family members or neighbors to translate your very personal story.
Here are some other things that should help you better understand your rights to good interpreting with police:
6. Remember, telephone communication in the United States is highly mechanized. When you make a phone call in the United States, there are many times that instead of reaching a human being, you'll get an answering machine or a voice mail system. It's very important that you leave messages. Leave the information slowly. Say your name slowly and give your phone number slowly. Remember, someone who probably doesn't know Spanish perfectly is listening to the message and trying to write it down. Always leave complete information about the best time to call you back. And if you don't want them to call back when your husband is home, be sure and leave that information on the message too.
7. What if you go to police or to crisis workers and they don't give you the help you need or they treat you badly? Don't give up! It's true, there are incompetent people in every occupation, there are racist people, lazy people, and sexist people. It's also true that there are competent, respectful, and very helpful people probably right there in the same office. So if you run into someone who treats badly, call again on another shift, or ask a friend to call the person's boss. But please don't give up. You deserve help! So keep asking until you get it.