advocacy with immigrant survivors toolkit


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Advocates play an important role in creating greater access for immigrant survivors to other community systems and resources. This work is critical because it decreases barriers for the individuals that you work with, makes approaching the same resource easier the next time, and decreases barriers for others in similar situations.


Systems change is a process that involves responding to a barrier confronted by one or more survivors and builds on that one experience to create significant change in a system or service. The advocate’s role grows from confronting one barrier for one survivor to changing the problem for all survivors in similar situations.


1. Identify the problem.

When immigrant survivors are denied services, it can be very frustrating for both the survivor and the advocate. These are great opportunities for systems change.


Read more—Story from the field:


At a training on working with immigrant survivors, I learned that in our state, immigrants with prima facie VAWA determinations are eligible to apply for public benefits. I went with a survivor who had just received a prima facie VAWA determination to our local county public benefits office with all of the necessary paperwork. The intake worker refused to process the application because he told us that without a green card or citizenship, the survivor was not eligible to apply. I knew that this was incorrect, but he said that he was following the policies of the office and that we would have to leave.



2. Get more information.

It is difficult to know how widespread a problem is after a single incident. It is helpful to collect additional information to help understand the scope of the problem and how often it happens. Keep track of what’s happening when immigrant survivors interact with the systems and services in your area. Consider gathering information from survivors and advocates in your program or collaborative network. Listening sessions or focus groups with survivors are effective ways of learning about their experiences.  Focus groups with advocates or staff meetings are good ways to gather a lot of information about specific topics like language access and other barriers to accessing services.


Read more—Story from the field:


I contacted the Legal Aid attorney who had provided the information at the training about eligibility for public benefits. She confirmed that the survivor IS eligible to apply for benefits and she offered to help us speak to a supervisor.

A quick survey of other advocates in our office, and of an inter-agency work group of advocates who work with immigrant survivors revealed two important things:

a.    Many advocates did not know that immigrant survivors with prima facie determinations are eligible for public benefits in our state; and

b.    Nearly all of us had difficultly accessing public benefits for survivors with prima facie determinations.

This quick (and very unscientific) information gathering helped us understand the scope of the problem. It also brought us all together to mobilize on the issue.


3. Engage others.

Systems change is much more easily accomplished when advocates, attorneys, community members and systems staff establish a meaningful partnership with a common purpose. This working relationship requires trust and, in some communities, a willingness to set aside short-term political gains or age-old animosities in exchange for long-term community benefit.  Often, it requires many people raising the same issue in a coordinated effort to raise the issue to a level that will result in a change in the system.


Read more—Story from the field:


My supervisor was involved in the process from the beginning by providing guidance and by initiating the call with the supervisor at the public benefits office. The benefits office supervisor was very interested in learning about the issue and in working with us to create a better process for qualified immigrant survivors to apply for public benefits.

We continued documenting the problems, the individuals involved, and the steps that we tried to take to resolve the issues.

Throughout he process, we kept in touch with other advocates, managers, and the Legal Aid staff about what we were learning, and if there were any other instances of qualified immigrant survivors being denied access to services. All of the information that we shared together was very useful for building our collective knowledge, understanding the scope of the problem, and identifying individuals within the public benefits office who would be helpful in creating greater change. 



4. Approach the problem from a stance of mutual interest, collaboration, and survivor safety.

The most effective way to approach any system to make change is to present information in a constructive manner. Assume that the people working at the program, agency, or system want to provide quality services to the survivors that you are working with. Often, service to all survivors is part of their agency mission, and social justice was probably a motivation for many of them to begin their careers.


Read more—Story from the field:


The public benefits supervisor told us that she would need detailed information to share with the directors of the public benefits office and the health department in charge of public benefits.  The Legal Aid attorney wrote a detailed memo that included references to the relevant state and federal statutes that established eligibility for immigrant survivors with prima facie determinations. We were able to utilize some of the information that the advocacy community had collected in the memo as well.

With this information, the survivor that I was working with was allowed to apply for benefits and was approved for critical economic support.




5.  Push for broader change.

Often, making a small change can lead to change that impacts more than just one survivor. You can use the individual success of one case to build a larger systems change strategy.


Read more—Story from the field:


The fact that our efforts resulted in a positive outcome for that particular survivor did not guarantee that the next survivor would have the same experience. In fact, the next time one of my co-workers went to support another survivor in a similar situation, she was told that the survivor did not qualify. Our staff quickly mobilized to get a copy of the Legal Aid memo, contact the public benefits supervisor, and arrange a meeting with the supervisor and director.

As a result of this meeting and additional discussions, all intake staff at the public benefits office were provided with training on eligibility for immigrant survivors. The public benefits supervisor was also able to arrange for one intake staff person to be the primary point of contact for all immigrant survivors. This made the process significantly easier for all qualified immigrant survivors to apply for public benefits at that office.





6. If more pressure is needed:

In some instances, even with informed and allied individuals within a system, the decision-makers may resist the change necessary to increase access for immigrant survivors.

Advocates can increase pressure through systems accountability strategies, such as compelling a federally-funded system to fulfill its legal obligations. Do so carefully and with some transparency—in most communities you will have to work with this person and system again, often on behalf of a survivor or community who needs their cooperation and good will.

Know how to file complaints at community levels. For example, a complaint about a nonprofit organization might be made to its board of directors; to the state Attorney General’s office; or to funders, including, if it receives federal funds, to the civil rights compliance department of the federal agency that administers the funds.

If that is not sufficient, research which federal government agency funds (and therefore administers) the community-based service or benefit. Generally speaking, each federally-funded agency has its own civil rights compliance department, and formal complaints and investigations measures. Be aware, however, that some are simpler and easier to access than others; and that how to file a complaint is not always clear. For example, although the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is charged with all immigration-related matters, complaints about an application might be made to Citizenship and Immigration Services, but complaints about enforcement might be made to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Patrol, depending on which agency was involved. All three are branches of DHS, but each has its own complaints and investigations process.

Many sexual and domestic violence programs receive funds through their state coalitions or directly from their state governments (e.g., departments of health and human services; children, youth, and families; or attorneys general). Their state coalitions or state governments, in turn, receive funds from the federal government as authorized by, for example, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) or the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). And each federal law will designate which federal agency is responsible for administering federal funds: the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) administers FVPSA funds that go to community-based domestic violence programs; and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) administers VAWA funds that go to community-based sexual and domestic violence programs. HHS and DOJ each have their own civil rights divisions that enforce the nondiscrimination laws that apply to their services and benefits.


See the following for examples of how to file complaints for violations of specific civil rights:

“Filing a complaint about VAWA Confidentiality violations with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS)”

“Advocating after court”[1] in the Increasing Language Access in the Courts Toolkit by the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities (for information about filing a complaint about denial of language access services in court systems).




[1] See “When to use pressure?” (pages 29-30).