Last Thursday, Students for Consent and Communication, Ajua Campos, International House, and the Planned Parenthood Campus Action Interns co-sponsored a discussion titled “Immigration and Domestic Violence: Examining the Legal Implications of Intersectionality.” The discussion invited students to learn about and discuss the crossroads of domestic abuse and immigration. It also delved into the difficulties that victims of domestic violence experience who are either undocumented or reliant on their partners for their lawful immigration statuses.
“The intent is to try to make students question some of these issues that aren’t at the forefront [of campus activism],” said organizer and President of Students for Consent and Communication Nina Gurak ’16.
The discussion featured Martin Wheeler, a family law attorney who works with victims of domestic violence at Connecticut Legal Services, a private, non-profit, civil law firm that provides representation and counseling to low-income families and individuals.
Wheeler addressed the traumatic experiences of his clients, both citizens and immigrants.
“Victims of domestic violence are not always but very often highly traumatized, especially if the violence had occurred for many years,” Wheeler said. “Victims not only have psychological damage, they also develop physical symptoms.”
Victims without documentation or whose legal statuses are dependent on a partner’s citizenship status face the additional stress of finding ways to leave their abusers without jeopardizing their residency in the United States. In such cases, victims are more reluctant to seek legal aid. Wheeler described some of the legal opportunities offered to these domestic violence victims.
“The Violence Against Women Act that Congress passed allows the abused spouse who lacks documentation to petition for an immigration visa, [as long as] that victim of abuse can convince the immigration office that the marriage was originally in good faith,” Wheeler said.
Victims of domestic abuse, whose stories and reasons for petitioning for immigration visas are highly sensitive in nature, can find the length and complex demands of the application an overwhelming challenge.
“One of the documents the [U.S.] Immigration Office puts emphasis on is the personal statement,” Wheeler explained. “Imagine someone traumatized by domestic abuse—the last thing that person wants to do is recall those things and put them down on paper. I might be working with that client for a year before that client is psychologically able to do that.”
Immigrant victims of domestic abuse may also face language barriers, experience financial difficulties, or lack support from extended family members, resources that would be more easily accessible to citizens and permanent residents. Nevertheless, Wheeler noted the positivity and resilience in his clients who are immigrants.
“The thing that fascinates me is that my clients are real risk takers,” Wheeler said. “Many of them are on their way to being economically self-sufficient. For the majority of them, they are a special breed; they have a willingness to succeed.”
For Wheeler, the most challenging aspect of his work is to balance the need to listen to and have compassion for his clients with the efficiency demanded of lawyers.
“Clients don’t pay money,” Wheeler said. “[Connecticut Legal Services] is supported by the state of Connecticut, grants, among other sources. To maintain that level of financial support, there is that pressure to be efficient, to be goal oriented. But I can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s really about the individual client.”
Students aware of the issue have gotten involved in helping Connecticut Legal Services work with their immigrant clients by translating documents from English to the clients’ native languages.
“There are students at Wesleyan who have offered to translate legal documents,” Wheeler said. “That’s really crucial to us because it’s so time consuming sometimes to translate these documents.”
Ana Castro ’15, one of the students who volunteered translation services, attended the discussion and responded positively to the presentation.
“I’m very passionate about immigration reform since I’m from Texas, and there are a lot of undocumented workers there,” she said. “And I feel passionate that they should be given citizenship, so that they won’t be exploited for low wages.”
Like Castro, Gurak thought the event was a meaningful dialogue and hoped that the students would share their new knowledge with their respective communities.
“I think [Martin] did a really good job of addressing what a lot of people who organize around this issue feel, that it can be a very exhausting, really draining work,” Gurak said. “I think it’s validating to hear that, but I also think that he’s so positive about it. And I think that’s a really helpful tip. It can be an uphill battle, especially if you don’t have a lot of positive anger or energy to work with.”