Immigrant Women: Forgotten and Discounted

10/25/12 Asylum

While there was plenty of talk during the presidential debates about the equality of women, one group remained unmentioned and invisible: immigrant women who suffer in silence at the hands of their abusers.

During the second presidential debate, candidates were asked about how each of them intended to rectify gender inequality in the workplace. President Obama explained that he signed the Lily Ledbetter bill furthering the rights of women to demand equal pay for equal work. He analogized that women’s issues are family issues and that is why we must fight for them. Governor Romney talked about his experience trying to ensure he had women’s voices in his Cabinet as Massachusetts governor, with his now-famous reference to “binders full of women.”

Both candidates again mentioned women in the third presidential debate. Governor Romney talked about how with “the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women [in] public life and in economic life in the Middle East”, and President Obama talked about the responsibility of the United States to “make sure that we’re protecting religious minorities and women because these countries can’t develop unless all the population — not just half of it — is developing.”

What the debates and ensuing social media traffic has missed however, is the reality that thousands of immigrant women right here in the United States continue to be forgotten and discounted no matter how much equality there is on the books or how much flexibility employers give their women workers. The reality is especially dire for undocumented immigrant women, who are at the mercy of their abusers and face what seem insurmountable barriers to escaping the physical, psychological and emotional bonds of their relationship.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a landmark piece of legislation that was enacted to improve criminal justice and community-based responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in the United States. Congress passed VAWA in 1994. It was subsequently reauthorized in 2000 and 2005. VAWA changed the landscape for victims who once suffered in silence. Victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking have been able to access services, and a new generation of families and justice system professionals finally understood that domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking are crimes that our society will not tolerate. VAWA was scheduled for reauthorization in 2010.

It is now 2012 and VAWA has not been reauthorized.

In a statement made on the 18th Anniversary of the VAWA, Attorney General Eric Holder urged Congress to come together on a bipartisan basis as it has historically done to pass a VAWA reauthorization that “expands rather than limits victim access to justice and strengthens law enforcement and prosecutorial tools to seek justice and hold violators accountable.” He noted that VAWA has been strengthened each time it has been reauthorized, and that after 18 years of progress, it should be no different.

The clock however is ticking.


  • 658 days have passed since VAWA expired
  • 160 days have passed since Congress’ last action on VAWA, and there are only
  • 48 days until this Congressional session ends and VAWA 2012 dies!

During the past 10 years, with VAWA as an example, states have passed more than 660 laws to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. All states have passed laws making stalking a crime and changed laws that treated date or spousal rape as a lesser crime than stranger rape. Businesses have also joined the national fight against violence. Hundreds of companies have created Employee Assistance Programs that help victims of domestic violence.

We cannot afford to lose these protections for some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Women are often the primary caretakers, the bread-winners as single mothers, the ones who keep the family together, and the nucleus of our society. When mothers are imprisoned at home, abused, broken, and discarded, so are our children – the future of our society. For immigrant women, the terror of an abusive relationship is compounded. Subjected to threats because of her immigration status, an immigrant woman is likely to be unaware of resources available and terrified of leaving her only source of shelter and sustenance, not knowing who to turn to without identification or legal status.

Research shows that nearly 75% of abused immigrant women reported their spouses had never filed immigration papers to give them legal status. Abusers who eventually filed papers for their immigrant spouses waited almost four years to file. In addition, immigrant women report that their abusers threaten them with deportation if they try to leave. Worse even, studies show that less than 20% of battered immigrant women without legal immigration status are likely to contact the police. Yet since VAWA was first enacted, studies show that reporting of domestic violence has increased by as much as 51%.

The presidential candidates mentioned women at least 30 times in the second presidential debate and fewer times in the third debate. It was a push to court the votes of American women while immigrant women remain forgotten and discounted by Congress.  Our great Nation cannot move forward unless all the population — not just half of it — can participate in Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

by Annaluisa Padilla