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, CA. “[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.
Immigrant Legal Services helps victims like Lee's mother obtain legal status and a work permit thereby freeing them from the abuser and allowing them to independently support themselves financially.
Story used with permission from "Battered Lives: Breaking the Cycle of Domestic Abuse Hard for Immigrant Families" by Amy DePaul from Voice of OC.