Some immigrant survivors’ experiences of sexual assault may predate their entry into the US (having been victimized or witnessed victimization during war, for example). The experience of immigration tends to increase vulnerability to recurring sexual assault, as immigrants are generally more isolated and may be actively targeted by aggressors who see them as socially and legally vulnerable. Increased isolation is not necessarily geographic – survivors end up isolated for many reasons, for example, due to limited English proficiency, fear of deportation, efforts to retain privacy in small, tightly-knit immigrant communities, or concerns about seeking help from formal justice or social services systems.
Sexual Violence: Enhance Your Practice
As you seek to understand an immigrant survivor’s experience of sexual violence during intake, consider the following:
1) Listen carefully for recurring themes, particularly those that have to do with cultural contexts of violence with which you are less familiar. For example, some interpretations of religious scriptures consider sex to be a marital obligation, and survivors who identify with these interpretations may be less likely to identify sex forced by their spouse as marital rape.
2) Language shapes our communication about sexual violence, so make sure to gain a contextualized understanding of the words a survivor is using—not just the definition provided by Google Translate. For example, languages as different as Spanish and Mandarin Chinese use words for experiences of sexual abuse and violence that can translate into English as having been “bothered.” Also, ensure that interpreters are well versed in terms and idioms related to violence and abuse in the survivor’s dialect, and that the interpreter is willing to accurately discuss issues such as rape.
3) Ensure that survivors understand what your program and the law consider sexual violence, so that they can make informed choices. Avoid using terms with specific legal definitions that survivors may not yet be familiar with, such as “sexual harassment” and “marital rape.” When it is necessary to use these terms, always accompany them with clear definitions.
4) Think about how, during the intake, you might communicate what behavior is illegal. Also, look for ways to welcome the survivor to share the effects of the sexual violence on their wellbeing, and related needs and concerns.
For example, consider ways to communicate with survivors the following:
- Marital rape is illegal.
- Force can be exercised not just physically, but through threats, coercion, harassment, not letting the abused partner sleep, etc.
- Sex and sexual violence is not limited to penetration.
5) If a survivor discloses they are experiencing sexual violence in an intimate relationship, listen for domestic violence tactics that link sexual and immigration-related abuses, for example, whether the aggressor has claimed on legal papers that the survivor has a history of prostitution. (The claim will need to be addressed in the context of any victim-based form of immigration relief a survivor is seeking.)
6) Ensure that survivors know and understand the services to which they are entitled, regardless of immigration status. These services include:
- a sexual assault forensic medical exam
- emergency Medicaid for an emergency medical condition
- primary and preventive medical care at community health centers
- The Violence Against Women Act establishes that all survivors, regardless of immigration status, have access to sexual assault medical forensic exams. Survivors do not pay for the costs of the exams, although system procedures vary by state. States also vary widely regarding what, if any, related medical treatment (e.g., follow-up exams and care, medications, and counseling) is covered. Consult your state laws and regulations about follow-up services provided and procedures (direct payment to the provider or reimbursement to the individual) to cover the costs of the exam and follow-up services.
- The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 established that health care and social services workers are not required to ask about and/or report the immigration status of people seeking health care services for sexual assault, domestic violence, trafficking, or other criminal activity.
Mindlin, J., Orloff, L., Pochiraju, S., Baran, A. & Echavarria, E. (2013). Dynamics of sexual assault and the implications for immigrant women. In L. Orloff (Ed.), Empowering Survivors: Legal Rights of Immigrant Victims of Sexual Assault.National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, Washington College of Law at American University, and Legal Momentum.
Orloff, L., Baran, A. & Mounts, P. (2013). Access to health care for immigrant victims of sexual assault. In L. Orloff (Ed.), Empowering Survivors: Legal Rights of Immigrant Victims of Sexual Assault.National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, Washington College of Law at American University, and Legal Momentum.
[a1]For translator: Available only in English.
[j2]Link to “Domestic violence” in “Practice guidance” in “Prepare for intake.”
[j3]KATELYNN – Let’s try this as an “accordion” format. The info included in the drop-down s/b first bullet, below, “The Violence Against Women Act…follow-up services.”
[a4]Link to “Services ‘to protect life or safety’” in “Federal benefits” in “Public benefits” in “Accessing resources.”
[j5]KATELYNN – Let’s try this as an “accordion” format. The info included in the drop-down s/b second bullet, below, “The Illegal Immigration… criminal activity.”
[a6]Link to “Nonprofits” in “Public benefits” in “Accessing resources.”
[j7]KATELYNN – if the two accordions make sense, we will omit this line.
[a8]FOR TRANSLATOR: Available only in English.