Violence against Immigrant and Migrant Women and Law Enforcement Response Essay

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Immigrant and migrant women who are caught in abusive relationships and/or victims of sexual assault, trafficking, or other violent crime must often turn to law enforcement for assistance. Many times, law enforcement officers are the first responders to incidents involving violence—be they at the home or in public. An immigrant or migrant woman’s willingness to reach out to law enforcement is shaped by many factors, including her experiences with law enforcement and the criminal justice system in her home country; her past experiences with law enforcement in the United States; and her facility with the English language, fear of deportation, and fear of retribution by her abuser, his family members, or her cultural community.

Immigrant and migrant victims may have tried to call police back in their home countries or previously in the United States, but felt that the police did not take their concerns seriously. In many countries, violence in the home is still seen as a private, not public, matter. Additionally, many immigrant women often turn to other women for support. If other women in the community have reached out to law enforcement, but have had bad experiences, it is less likely that a woman will turn to police for help.

In many communities law enforcement officials have not made their services language accessible to non–English-speaking victims, despite Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act requirements. Many times, immigrant and migrant victims are unable to communicate with police when they arrive at the scene of the crime. The abuser or other crime perpetrator will control the conversation if he speaks English, and police will oftentimes take his word. This can lead to the victim’s instead of the abuser’s arrest, despite physical evidence that the abuser is the perpetrator and primary aggressor. When police are not bilingual and do not access interpreters at the crime scene to facilitate communication with a non–English-speaking victim, they increase the risk that they will arrest the victim rather than the perpetrator. The victim’s arrest can increase danger to her from the perpetrator, who evades being held accountable by the criminal justice system and whose power and control over his victim is enhanced. Furthermore, the victim’s arrest can cut her off from immigration relief available to her under the Violence Against Women Act.

Of all the reasons immigrant women do not call the police, fear of deportation is the primary one. If the victim is undocumented, she may fear that if she calls for help she will be turned in to immigration authorities and be deported. Abusers of immigrant women, traffickers, and other crime perpetrators use threats of deportation to keep immigrant victims from calling the police, from obtaining protection orders, and from telling anyone about the abuse. Sometimes, the victim’s immigration status and/or options for legal immigration status are tied to her abusive spouse, parent, or employer under U.S. immigration laws. The victim may fear that if she reaches out to police, her abuser may not help her or her children file for and obtain legal immigration status.

Violence against immigrant and migrant women can take forms other than intimate partner violence. Women may have been trafficked for labor or commercial sex purposes. Trafficking for either purpose involves extreme isolation of women from the outside world, so that control over many aspects of their lives belongs to the trafficker. Traffickers tell their victims to fear law enforcement and that police will discover they are undocumented immigrants, will catch them, and will send them back to their home countries. Trafficking victims’ extreme isolation keeps them hidden from the outside world. As a result they rarely come in contact with police. Law enforcement raids of trafficking rings may be the first time a trafficked victim has ever had contact with law enforcement. Being introduced to the police in such a violent way can reinforce everything the trafficker has told the victim about law enforcement. Since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, federal and state law enforcement have undertaken significant efforts to reach out to and identify trafficked victims. However, close collaborations between law enforcement and victim advocates are needed as early as possible to ensure trafficking victims protection and access to the services and support they need.

The Violence Against Women Act of 2000 created a crime victim visa (U-visa) for which the Department of Homeland Security published implementing regulations that took effect on October 17, 2007. In order to qualify for a U-visa a crime victim must have suffered substantial physical or emotional abuse as a result of criminal activity and must be helpful, have been helpful, or be willing to be helpful in an investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. To file, a victim must obtain a certification from a government (usually law enforcement) official. The U-visa provides an important opportunity for advocates and law enforcement to work together to improve law enforcement response to calls for help from immigrant victims. Advocates for victims should work with local law enforcement to ensure that as wide a range of supervisors as possible are authorized by the law enforcement agency to sign U-visa certifications. By becoming involved in U-visa certification, law enforcement agencies can work more effectively to help immigrant and migrant victims and to bring the perpetrators of crimes against them to justice, while giving immigrant and migrant women an incentive to reach out to law enforcement.


  1. Ammar, N., Orloff, L. E., Dutton, M. A., & Aguilar-Hass, G. (2005). Calls to the police and police response: A case study of Latina immigrant women in the USA. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 7(4), 230–244.
  2. Department of Homeland Security. (2007). New classifications for victims of criminal activity; Eligibility for “U” nonimmigrant status. Retrieved from
  3. Orloff, L. E., Dutton, M. A., Aguilar-Hass, G., & Ammar, N. (2003). Battered immigrant women’s willingness to call the police for help. UCLA Women’s Law Journal, 13(1),43–100.
  4. Sreeharsha, K., & Orloff, L. E. (2007, November). Human trafficking and the T visa. Presentation delivered to the Legal Momentum Immigrant Women Program Conference, Washington, DC.
  5. Limited English Proficiency: A Federal Interactive Website:

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