Growing up, 21-year-old Elizabeth Lee knew there was something wrong in her parents’ relationship. Her mother and father fought often, with her father sometimes sleeping on the couch of their apartment or not coming home at all.
One summer's night when Lee was 11, the fighting got particularly bad and Lee’s mother ordered her and her brother into Lee’s bedroom. What she remembers next is the sound of yelling and crying – and being terrified.
“I think I remember my mother telling me to call 911, but I was scared to,” said Lee, who grew up in Los Angeles County and now lives in Tustin. “[That night] My brother and I slept with my mom. We were worried about her. She had this big bruise on her face.”
The next day, Lee’s mother went to the hospital, where the staff strongly encouraged her to report the incident to police.
However, Lee's mother, an immigrant from Taiwan who spoke little English, had decided against going to police. She was awaiting the outcome of her application for permanent residency and feared she would be deported. Also, Lee’s father had told her he could take the children from her due to her immigration status.
“My dad had threatened to take my brother and me away from her, and she got really freaked out. She didn’t know what to do because he’d hit her before and she didn’t want to report it,” Lee recalled recently.
It wasn’t until an English-speaking acquaintance arranged for them to take refuge in a shelter that Lee, her mother, and brother fled their home and later sought a restraining order against Lee's father before eventually moving back.
The complicated factors preventing Lee’s mother from seeking help for so long – fear of deportation and separation from children, economic dependency, social isolation and lack of English skills – are all too common in immigrant families beset by domestic violence.
Assisting victims who are immigrants is especially difficult due to their fears of detection and reluctance to embrace resources. And some police departments, such as Santa Ana's, make it harder for immigrant victims who are undocumented to secure the legal protections intended to benefit them.
Across All Cultures
Domestic violence occurs in nearly all cultures and arises from the need for power and control over an intimate partner, experts say. Only in recent decades have many nations passed laws that specifically prohibit it, with greater recognition of male victimization and same-sex battering an even more recent phenomenon.
In the U.S., most local jurisdictions changed their laws in the mid 1980s to increase arrests of suspected abusers. Then, in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act allocated more resources to providing victim services and prosecuting offenders. Over the past year, high-profile domestic violence cases -- such as the much-publicized incident involving NFL player Ray Rice -- have brought the issue to the fore in ways that it never was before.
But this newfound awareness has not spread to all immigrant families, whose home nations’ laws and culture sometimes reflect more traditional notions of male authority.
Immigrants from Korea, who make up the second largest Asian-American community in Orange County, are among those caught between changing views of domestic abuse, according to experts such as Ellen Ahn, the director of KC Services in Orange County. KC Services runs a court-ordered batterers program, mostly for Korean men.
“Korean culture is a very patrilineal and patriarchal…it’s only recently, say the past two decades, that females have had any rights,” Ahn said. She added that South Korea has outlawed domestic violence, but many immigrants are holding onto the norms that prevailed when they left.
“Korea now has very western laws; it’s a developed country,” Ahn said. “But laws are one thing; culture and tradition change more slowly.”
Christian churches – highly influential institutions in U.S. Korean life – traditionally have focused on family unity at the expense of a wife’s empowerment, encouraging victims to stay in their marriages at a high cost, according to California State Fullerton Professor Sharon Kim, an expert on Korean churches in the U.S.
Kim said the churches have begun to evolve under the leadership of younger pastors who believe that domestic violence is "not something to sweep under the rug and ignore." Yet, the desire to keep abuses hidden in order to reflect well on family and community remains a powerful factor in immigrants’ lives.
An Iranian-born domestic violence victim who did not want her name published, remembers announcing her intention to leave her then husband after a violent episode in their Aliso Viejo home. Both her family and her husband’s urged her not to do so.
“Everyone was advocating for us to get back together. It felt like I was being victimized again because people were blaming me for wanting to end the marriage,” she said, adding that going to a shelter and seeking public assistance were highly frowned on in her community.
“Live in a motel? That was not even an option for me," she said. "My family said, ‘Don’t tell anyone. Don’t say anything.’ It was an embarrassment to the Iranian community.”
This kind of social pressure is all too common, experts say.
“You know what I find?” said Marissa Presley, who was born in Mexico but now works at Laura’s House, a shelter in Orange County. “Whether it’s immigrants from Ghana or Portugal or Mexico, we are really tight-knit communities, and we kind of stick together, and we don’t want to air this dirty laundry to the rest of the world.” [To watch a video interview with Presley, click here.]
In addition to concerns about community disapproval, the immigrant family ethic may dissuade victims from embracing outside assistance – such as moving to a shelter or calling the police – that could break up their family.
Dr. Leigh Kimberg of the San Francisco Department of Public Health said most programs for domestic violence victims are oriented toward helping victims separate from their abusers. But many immigrant victims are not willing to leave, and want help stopping the violence while they remain in the relationship.
“We’re not sure how to make that happen,” Kimberg said.
Santa Ana’s Reluctance
One source of relief for victims of domestic violence who are undocumented is a special legal status known as a U-Visa. The visas allow recipients to work legally, which could prove pivotal for undocumented women who have stayed with an abuser due to lack of economic independence.
But there is a stipulation: the U-Visas are available only to victims who cooperate with authorities in pursuing offenders. For a victim to pursue the temporary visa, a law enforcement agency – such as a police department or district attorney’s office – has to certify that she helped authorities investigate or prosecute the abuser.
How a police department handles certification has a lot of bearing on a victim’s chances of securing the U-Visa.
In Anaheim, police are willing to certify cooperation in all cases in which victims assisted investigating officers, even if prosecutors decide not to take the case for whatever reason, according to Anaheim Police Lt. James Kazakos.
But the Santa Ana Police Department has a stricter policy. According to a 2013 memo, the department will not certify a victim’s cooperation once a case is passed on to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. This means that if the DA’s office decides not to move ahead with a case, which can occur even when a victim is fully cooperative, the victim has no one to certify her cooperation under Santa Ana’s policy.
Santa Ana Police Det.-Sgt. Ron Grace said the department will grant exceptions, though its written policy makes no mention of them. Meanwhile, local attorneys specializing in domestic violence cases say exceptions have not been made available to them and that the city has long been known for its reluctance to certify.
“We’ve pursued it and submitted requests for certifications and haven’t been successful. I’m sure there’s an exception, but we haven’t met the criteria,” said Lisa D. Ramirez, a partner in U.S. Immigration Law Group in Santa Ana. She and other attorneys have met with Santa Ana city attorneys to discuss changing the policy, to no avail.
“Santa Ana’s been the biggest challenge for us with the certifications,” Ramirez said.
Lucero Chavez, an immigration attorney formerly with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said withholding certification to a victim due to lack of prosecution is unfair and unnecessary.
“When you look at the statute around certification, a person has to assist or be available to assist in an investigation. The statute doesn’t say anything about prosecution or conviction,” Chavez said.
The varying interpretations of the statute by cities lead to a failure to offer equal protection under the law to certain domestic violence victims, which is both unjust and detrimental to public safety, according to Julie Marzouk, professor in the Bette and Wylie Aitken Family Violence Clinic at Chapman University School of Law.
“We make domestic violence a crime in our country, and if we turn a blind eye to domestic violence when it occurs to non-citizens, then we allow crime to be perpetrated again in the future,” Marzouk said. “Citizens and non-citizens alike are entitled to the full protections of our laws."
Daughters Helping Mothers
For immigrant victims, seeking protections can be fraught with peril.
Many fear losing their children as a result of an investigation by the state’s Child Protective Services, which authorities must notify in cases where child abuse is suspected. And witnessing domestic violence is now considered child abuse under the law.
In addition to fearing the loss of her children, an immigrant victim may fail to contact authorities out of concern that her spouse will withdraw his petition to give her permanent residency. An undocumented victim may also worry that calling police will lead to deportation of her children’s father and family breadwinner, or that in dealing with police, her own status will be detected.
Similarly, undocumented victims fear going to shelters and providing the required identifying information like Social Security numbers even though the shelters promise to keep the information confidential.
Some of these fears are unlikely to be realized. For instance, rarely are parental rights terminated. And police in California are not supposed to circulate the names of crime victims and witnesses to immigration authorities.
But deportation is a real prospect for suspects charged with domestic violence, and sometimes even for victims mistaken for batterers –a surprisingly common occurrence.
Professor Jane Stoever, director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at the UC Irvine School of Law, oversaw two cases last fall in which immigrant victims were arrested as batterers – one in Garden Grove and one in Los Angeles.
Stoever and her students then presented evidence of innocence to prosecutors, who agreed the arrests were mistaken and did not press charges as a result. Had Stoever not taken their cases pro bono, those victims likely would have faced deportation.
“Fortunately we were able to intervene early enough,” said Stoever. “But it is honestly unusual for someone to have an attorney intervening at this stage.”
Experts say one of the best ways to get immigrant victims of domestic violence to overcome their fears and seek help is not always through institutional outreach but rather through their own children.
Increasingly, according to Human Options founder Vivian Clecak, “Young women from the Vietnamese and Korean communities are calling shelters on behalf of their mothers.”
Another strategy is reminding reluctant victims that children in homes with domestic abuse suffer as a result of exposure to violence, even if they're not assaulted themselves.
“I say, ‘You know why your son is aggressive and getting kicked out of school? Domestic violence,” said Presley of Laura’s House. “‘Do you know why your daughter is depressed and cutting herself? Domestic violence.’ I’ve had people say, ‘You’re scaring me.’ I say, ‘Good.’”
Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at email@example.com