Taking Action

12.10.133:00 PM ET

Detained and Fearing for Her Life

How immigration reform and the International Violence Against Women Act can save the lives of millions of women across the world

As lawmakers continue to play politics with immigration reform and legislation to protect women against violence, Ana Cristina*, a 39-year-old woman from Central America, sits in a detention center.

After 18 months, she’s still waiting to hear whether a judge will grant her request for asylum in the U.S.—perhaps one of the only things that could save her life.

Ana Cristina crossed the border illegally because she believed that she had no other choice. For years, starting when she was in her early teens, Ana Cristina’s common-law husband abused her physically, emotionally and sexually—over and over and over. After becoming pregnant with his child, he beat her so badly that she suffered a miscarriage. Even when she tried to escape by moving away from him, he followed her. If she ever goes back to her home country, she believes his violence might kill her.

In my 30 years of studying violence against women, mainly in Latin America, I have met dozens of women like Ana Cristina who have escaped horrifying situations only to be detained, fearing they’ll be deported back into abuse. Other women avoid detention, but without a pathway to citizenship, they live invisibly, easy targets for violation and exploitation.

For many families abroad and in the United States, the passage of comprehensive immigration reform and the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) is a matter of life or death. And right now, we have two opportunities—outlined today in a policy brief released by the George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute and We Belong Together—to make significant strides to protect women like Ana Cristina.

If passed, the proposed immigration reform in Congress would bring millions of undocumented women and their families out of the shadows.

Roughly 51 percent of foreign-born individuals in the U.S. and 48 percent of refugees are women, yet only 27 percent of U.S. work visas are granted to women. Migrant women tend to work in service industries, which do not receive visa priority. Without a visa, women don’t have the means to assert their labor and civil rights. Research shows that when granted citizenship, women are more likely to remove themselves from abusive relationships without fear they’ll be deported.

But this only addresses the violence that women face once they arrive in the U.S., leaving untouched the deeply rooted norms and institutions that perpetuate violence in their home countries—the ones that terrorized Ana Cristina for so many years.

Women may be forced to stay with abusive husbands because fleeing would mean splitting apart the family, bringing them shame in the eyes of their community. They may not have enough money to escape. Or they may have called out for help only to have their pleas fall on deaf ears. When Ana Cristina reported her abuse to the authorities in her home country, the officers didn’t even write down what she told them. They did nothing.

To make sustained progress in ending violence against women and girls, we must create a safe environment for them everywhere in the world. The passage of IVAWA would be an important step in that direction.

IVAWA, which was recently reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, would support economic and educational programs that could help prevent women becoming victims of abuse or trafficking.

The legislation would also help survivors of gender-based violence, improve U.S. humanitarian assistance to victims and support in-country efforts to change attitudes about violence against women. It would also authorize training U.S. and foreign military to be better equipped to protect women from violence. IVAWA would even reduce pressure on the stressed U.S. immigration system, because fewer women would need to flee their home countries.

By passing immigration reform and IVAWA, we give Ana Cristina and other women in her situation the opportunity to rebuild their lives—or avoid a life of abuse altogether. Ana Cristina’s life should not be cut into three-month detention extensions as immigration reform stalls. She wants to get a job and provide for her children, who live in the U.S. She wants her family to be safe, to live without constant fear of abuse.

But those dreams will only be realized once Congress enacts immigration reform and IVAWA. Until lawmakers take steps to protect women against violence, millions of women will continue to suffer.

We must do better for the Ana Cristinas of the world.


*Name and minor facts have been changed to protect anonymity.


Dr. Mary Ellsberg is the director of the George Washington University Global Women’s Institute.