DVRP | Article

Guest Writer: Kristina Smelser and Immigrant Experiences

A Forgotten People

By Kristina Smelser

In failing to comprehend the sheer scale of Asian and Pacific Islander migration into the United States, our society largely tends to discount these immigrants as unworthy of culturally-specific support and resources.  Since 2010, the number of South and East Asian immigrants arriving in the U.S. has surmounted that of Latinx migrants; according to Pew Research Center, Asians now constitute 27.4% of the immigrant population and are on track to comprise the U.S.’s largest immigrant group by the year 2055.1 In 2017, approximately 1.4 of the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. between 2012 and 2017 came from an Asian country.2

Increase in recent arrivals from Northern Triangle and Asia, decrease from Mexico

Many Asian women, both in their native country and elsewhere, face culturally- and traditionally-imposed barriers to seeking help when in situations of domestic violence, which one in three women experience worldwide.3  Traditional societal norms in many Asian countries dictate that a woman’s role in marriage is to be passive and adherent to her husband. Domestic violence is often viewed as a “private” matter, not to leave the boundaries of the family; similar beliefs exist across different Asian cultures, as displayed by a number of studies. Such ideals are perpetuated by mainstream American society wherein social constructions pit “normal and confident” white women against “exotic and submissive” South Asian Women.4 Moving to the U.S. can add challenges that can exacerbate the situations of Asian immigrant women.

An article in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence analyzes domestic violence against Cambodian immigrant women and highlights a prominent difference between their native country and the U.S.: in Cambodia, many families reside in “matrifocal homes, where sister and natal family networks served as natural barriers to marital disputes and deterred interpersonal violence”.3  When immigrant women come to the U.S., they instead tend to live in public housing that is often geographically isolated from not only family, but also public transportation, schools, supermarkets, and other urban facilities.

A spouse’s control over their partner’s finances, immigration status, or both, makes seeking help or separation even more difficult.  If someone’s legal status is dependent on their spouse’s, as is often the case among Asian immigrant couples, they may be fearful of deportation; an abusive partner can use this as a threat if they suspect their partner intends to leave them or contact authorities.4  Thus, it is imperative that organizations providing support to survivors remain completely independent from immigration authorities; it is also important that they emphasize the confidentiality of survivors’ personal information and experiences.5

Survivors of domestic abuse are often too fearful and ashamed to seek help, even from a medical provider in the U.S., and due to experiences in their home countries with corrupt, neglectful, or victim-blaming officials, immigrant survivors may instinctively fear and distrust U.S. authorities (DVRP).6 Their wariness of authorities is often well-justified; in the U.S., local criminal justice authorities and federal ICE agents often work in conjunction to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants through a variety of means including direct communication, fear tactics, and programs such as Criminal Alien Program and Secure Communities.7

By providing many types of support to Asian immigrant survivors, organizations can facilitate different aspects of their recovery, from long-term housing options to medical services to litigation assistance to career counseling where government institutions fall short.

One of the most prominent barriers is language: some, especially those with limited exposure to American social settings, do not speak English well enough to feel confident explaining their situation to authorities or resource centers.  Many Asian immigrants who experience domestic abuse not only lack language skills, but also tend to possess less knowledge about social institutions and norms in the U.S. than their abusers.8  Experiences such as these deter survivors from seeking the help that they so desperately need and deserve.

Although many shelters exist for Asian American survivors of domestic abuse, these are often concentrated in areas of larger Asian American populations; few exist in rural areas, and those that do may not be intended specifically for survivors of their nationality.9  Besides neglecting to offer language translation services, shelters and resource centers that support all survivors rather than a specific subgroup often fall short in other ways: for example, these institutions may offer resources or services that A/PI immigrant survivors cannot access, require that survivors do chores or activities they are not comfortable with, or serve American food for every meal rather than their native cuisine.  Though these details may seem insignificant, when compounded, they can make a survivor’s path to recovery all the more difficult.10

The absence of culturally-specific resources for Asian immigrant survivors can be attributed not only to a lack of awareness about Asian migration into the U.S., but also to a widespread assumption that this group is unworthy of help and resources.  If such societal ignorance persists, Asian immigrant survivors will continue to face often-insurmountable barriers to accessing support.  Thus once we acknowledge both the extent of Asian immigration into the U.S. and the prevalence of domestic violence within these immigrant communities, it is vital that we invest in culturally-specific resources that can provide these survivors with the support they need and deserve.  Ultimately, there is so much more we can do to empower, validate, and lift this community from spaces of marginalization.

*Article shortened by DVRP for publication.


About the Author

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Kristina Smelser served as a CAPAL Public Service Scholar in Washington, D.C. in collaboration with DVRP to create articles informing the public about challenges faced by API survivors of domestic violence.