For Immigrant Survivors, the Coronavirus Pandemic is Life-Threatening in Other Ways

For Immigrant Survivors, the Coronavirus Pandemic is Life-Threatening in Other Ways
As access to other critical support services dwindles, survivors of violence are more isolated and unable to seek assistance as they consider leaving violent situations. (European Parliament)

As the world adjusts to a new reality in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves in an unprecedented state of uncertainty and fear.

We are witnessing how the overwhelming gaps in our public systems put already vulnerable groups at higher risk—and this is especially true for immigrant survivors of gender-based violence.

For over 20 years, we have served immigrant women and girls in the United States, and the need has never been greater to protect those fleeing violence than now.

As people are told to stay home to slow the spread of the virus, “home” can be the most dangerous place for Tahirih clients living with their abusers. During times of unusual stress, like in war-stricken areas or after a natural disaster, violence in households is known to spike.

For abusers facing unemployment and scarcity of resources, the inability to deal with anxiety, fear and anger are shown to lead to increased violence against women. Alcohol abuse can worsen, and weapons are viewed as necessary to have in the household in case of emergencies. In these scenarios, victims are much more likely to suffer escalations in violence that can be life-threatening.

With orders to socially distance and shelter in place, abusers also know that their victims are almost completely cut off from family and friends—additional supports to break free from violence.

Our clients remain isolated in abusive households, where the grip of abusers strengthens. Opportunities for escape are becoming fewer and further between as shelters close, friends are unable to take victims in, and resources are scarce.

Like many Americans grappling with the loss of employment, most of the immigrant survivors we serve are hourly workers whose jobs are disappearing—many without the ability to apply for unemployment. Without an income, survivors of violence become all the more dependent on abusive partners to provide shelter, food, and access to health care, worsening the dynamics of power and control.

The paths to organize departures from dangerous situations are becoming increasingly complicated, making it even more difficult for immigrant survivors to find safety.


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All around, we see the impact of the growing climate of fear on Tahirih clients—which can be deadly during the pandemic.

Immigrant survivors were already afraid to contact the police or pursue legal action against their abusers due to ongoing deportation threats and harmful policies that target immigrant communities. Now, our clients–many of whom do not have health insurance—are even more fearful to reach out for medical care if they or their families were to get sick, making all communities less safe.

During these times, we continue to have phone meetings with clients to offer critical support. If an abuser is laid off or begins working from home, this lifeline might be cut off. Remote meetings with therapists to cope with symptoms of severe trauma may also have to stop. Remaining at home with their abusers may exacerbate mental health conditions for survivors who are already struggling with anxiety, PTSD and depression. 

As access to other critical support services dwindles, survivors of violence are more isolated and unable to seek assistance as they consider leaving violent situations.

Meanwhile, as immigration courts close, we do not know when our clients’ hearings will take place. Life-saving forms of legal relief, like asylum, designed to help our clients and other immigrant survivors become independent and access safety, are on hold now.

For Immigrant Survivors, the Coronavirus Pandemic is Life-Threatening in Other Ways
“The paths to organize departures from dangerous situations are becoming increasingly complicated,” Cutlip-Mason writes, “making it even more difficult for immigrant survivors to find safety.” Pictured: A rally against hate in Philadelphia, March 2017. (Joe Piette)

An already extreme backlog of immigration cases will grow exponentially, and immigrant survivors on the waitlist may not be able to access education, work permits, health care, housing subsidies, food stamps or other public benefits that could create opportunities for freedom from violence.

We are all experiencing deeply unsettling times. For immigrant survivors of gender-based violence, the dangers precipitated by this public health crisis are historic and unprecedented.

During these extraordinary times that we are all living through, let us focus on the oneness of our humanity and ensure that all public health, economic stimulus, and other measures keep in mind the particular needs of immigrant survivors of violence.


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About

Rená Cutlip-Mason is Chief of Programs at Tahirih Justice Center, the only national, multi-city organization providing a broad range of direct legal and social services, policy advocacy, and training and education to protect immigrant women and girls fleeing violence.