We’ve all heard it before. Many of us may have even asked it. When it comes to conversations about domestic violence, it’s not uncommon to hear that lingering question: “Why doesn’t she just leave?” While Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support is working to change the conversation, it’s important to understand the challenges women face while leaving abusive relationships and the barriers that exist for specific populations. 

The harsh reality is that not only are rates of intimate partner violence almost three times the national average for immigrant and undocumented women, but they also face unique hurdles that may prevent them from being able to access safety and justice. Many of these barriers are embedded in the very systems and policies that nominally protect and serve our communities. These systemic incongruities may put victims at a higher risk for abuse in the home, as it can encourage the abuser’s distorted belief that they are entitled to privileges that do not apply to their partners. The abuser’s actions are deliberate and targeted around the victim’s immigration status, with the end goal of maintaining power and control over her, keeping her in the relationship or punishing her for leaving.

Types of abuse and barriers specific to immigrant and undocumented victims:


  • Abusers may hide or destroy important/legal documents that victims need in this country such as passports, resident cards, work permits, birth certificates, marriage licenses, social security cards, health insurance or driver’s licenses.


  • Abusers may prevent the victim from communicating with friends, family or others from her home country.
  • Abusers may prevent the victim from developing any friendships or supportive relationships in their current community, limiting her knowledge and access to resources that could help her become safe.

Language barriers: 

  • Abusers may prevent the victim from learning English.
  • Abusers may take advantage of the victim’s language barriers and purposely provide the victim with false information regarding law enforcement, Child Protective Services, doctors or others in positions of power.
  • Law enforcement and/or first responders may not have the ability to speak the victim’s language, making it challenging to take her statement, make a police report or provide the victim with appropriate resources. 
  • Language and cultural barriers may make it difficult for some immigrant victims to understand their rights and access services, including assistance with providers who do not offer linguistically and culturally appropriate services.

Threats: The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) explains, 

Immigrant victims are frequently threatened with deportation by their abusers, increasing their reluctance to seek help from the authorities or services. This ongoing threat of deportation, whether from the abuser or because of federal immigration policies, also means that many victims are at an increased risk of being separated from their children, which also makes it less likely that they will seek help. When immigrant victims or witnesses reporting crimes fail to report or distrust the criminal justice system, this empowers abusers and perpetrators, contravenes existing protections afforded by law, undermines access to justice through the police and courts, creates extreme fear for immigrant families and communities, and undermines public safety.”


  • Abusers may threaten to hurt the victim’s children or take them away if the police are contacted or violence is reported.
  • Abusers may threaten to have the victim deported while the abuser remains in the U.S. with their children.
  • Abusers may convince the victim that he will be granted full custody due to her immigration status in order to ensure that she does not leave the relationship.

Manipulation Regarding Citizenship or Residency: 

  • Abusers may withdraw or threaten to withdraw the victim’s applications for residency or citizenship. National Organization for Women (NOW) reports, “Among abusive spouses who could have filed legal immigration papers for victims, 72.3% never file immigration papers and the 27.7% who did file had an average delay of 3.97 years.”
  • Abusers may also falsely file criminal charges against a victim to jeopardize her legal immigration status.

Financial Abuse

  • Abusers may attempt to get the victim fired in various ways, including telling her employer that the victim is undocumented. This causes the victim to become more dependent on the abuser, making it harder for her to leave the relationship.
  • Abusers may withhold access to money from victims, knowing that the victim may have work restrictions or an inability to generate an income due to immigration status.


  • Abusers may attempt to dehumanize and convince the victim that she deserves abuse due to her race, nationality, color of her skin or cultural practices.
  • Abusers may train the victim’s children to reject and mistreat the victim based on her race, nationality, color of her skin or cultural practices.
  • Victims may face challenges in seeking assistance from law enforcement or social services agencies due to prejudice against People of Color or negative stereotypes of immigrants or foreigners.

Fear: The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) explains,

Increased enforcement activity with overboard enforcement priorities has created a climate of fear among victims in immigrant communities and heightened the barriers for them to seek help. Numerous reports from police chiefs and prosecutors have shown significant reductions in the reporting of domestic violence and sexual assault. A recent survey, designed and distributed by seven national organizations working to end domestic violence and sexual assault, and answered by over 700 victim advocates and attorneys across the country, found:


  • 78% of advocates reported that immigrant survivors expressed concerns about contacting the police;
  • 75% of service providers reported that immigrant survivors have concerns about going to court for a matter related to the abuser/offender; and


  • 43% of advocates worked with immigrant survivors who dropped civil or criminal cases because of fear.” 

The Intersection of Domestic Violence, Immigration and other Vulnerable Populations:

  • Other factors that can create even more barriers for immigrant or undocumented victims to receive services include having a disability, being LGBTQ, living in a rural area with limited resources, incomplete education, lack of support and various other factors.

The truth is that all immigrants and undocumented persons in the U.S. have the right to live a life free from abuse. Under all circumstances, domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse are illegal in the United States. All people in the United States (regardless of race, color, religion, sex, age, ethnicity, national origin or immigration status) are guaranteed protection from abuse under the law. Any victim of domestic violence – regardless of immigration or citizenship status – can seek help. An immigrant victim of domestic violence may also be eligible for immigration related protections” (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).

If you are an immigrant or undocumented woman experiencing abuse, know that there are legal protections that you may apply for. To learn more about your rights or get connected with an immigration lawyer in your area, contact any of the following organizations:

National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233)
1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

National Sexual Assault Hotline of the Rape, Abuse
and Incest National Network (RAINN)
1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)

The National Center for Victims of Crime
1-800-FYI-CALL (1-800-394-2255)
1-800-211-7996 (TTY)

Note: These are organizations whose primary mission is safety and protection.

Written by Sara Campos, Bilingual Women’s & Children’s Therapist