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South Asian women do not have to be alone in abusive relationships. Organizations all across the country specialize in helping South Asian women get out of abusive relationships by providing legal assistance and opportunities to heal. Narika, a California-based helpline, provides a comprehensive list of resources in the US, the UK and Canada.













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Brides from Abroad

How immigration laws sanction domestic violence in South Asian American homes

By Manu Raju

Geeta, an Indian-born woman, arrives in the United States with her husband, Rajesh, who has been awarded the chance-of-a-lifetime to come to this country on a six-year work visa, commonly known as an H-1B.

Life in the United States with Rajesh, initially, goes off without a hitch. But after some time, Geeta feels isolated. Despite having earned a bachelor’s degree in Bangalore, she cannot work because her visa status precludes her from taking a job.

With little money, Geeta decides to prod her husband to increase her weekly allowance. Rajesh, worn out by long hours at his job, is annoyed by Geeta’s criticism of her situation. He strikes her with the back of his hand and warns that if she ever raises similar concerns again he will not fill out the forms needed for her to get a more permanent visa status. Failing to fill out key forms could prevent her from winning a green card from the U.S. government and lead to her deportation. Geeta quickly complies with Rajesh’s demands.

Though the names in this situation are not real, counselors at the approximately 30 South Asian abuse centers in the United States hear this story again and again. These counselors say that threats to choke off U.S. citizenship hopes are among some of the most common ways Indian women in this country are mistreated and forced to stay in abusive marriages for years on end. They cite holes in federal immigration law as contributors to the frequency of this type of abusive relationship.

“Abuse comes in many forms, including physical violence, emotional abuse, using children for coercion and intimidation,” says Nandini Assar, executive director of the Washington-based Asian Women's Self Help Association: “What we see very clearly is that immigration status is one major tool for an abuser to use.” Assar says that out of the clients who come to her organization--which assists domestically abused, Indian women in America--about one-third of the women voice complaints of immigration abuse. Others who track the issue say the situation arises in up to half of the cases at South Asian abuse shelters.

Federal law does not allow women in Geeta’s situation to work professionally, or petition for a green card individually even if they are in an abusive relationship. Also, there currently is no requirement in the fiancé-visa application process for a criminal background check on a U.S. citizen marrying an Indian-born woman, nor are these women told of how to guard against their immigration status being used against them.

Leaders of the abuse centers say these holes make immigration status an easy tool for a husband to gain leverage in a relationship; he can coerce his wife to act on his wishes in return for increasing the wife’s allowance or submitting critical immigration forms.

Because Indian immigrants enter the U.S. in large numbers each year, South Asian women’s abuse-prevention advocates say it is crucial for the government to fix problems with the visa system that may contribute to violence. India ranks fourth in the world in the number of people coming to the United States on temporary workers’ visas and transfers from within a multi-national companies, according to 2003 federal government statistics. Those statistics also say that 50,000 Indian immigrants entered the United States last year.

Advocates plan to urge members of the next Congress, which will convene in early 2005, to pass legislation that would protect these women from situations of mistreatment through their immigration status. Representatives from dozens of groups will convene later this year to discuss how to strengthen and move stalled congressional bills that would provide protections for foreign women who are set up through so-called international marriage brokers, who arrange for a man to pick a “mail-order bride” typically via the Internet. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Was.) introduced the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, in 2003, and a similar measure in the House was offered by Representative Rick Larsen (D-Was.).

Cantwell, in congressional testimony earlier this year, said that over the past five years 20,000-30,000 women have entered the country through marriage brokers. “And tragically, it is becoming apparent that there is a growing epidemic of domestic abuse among couples who meet via international marriage brokers,” she said at the July hearing in front of a Senate panel. “And in several cases, the abuse has progressed to murder.”

While the bills have failed to gain any traction in Congress, advocates, led by groups such as the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forumand Tahirih Justice Center,are planning an aggressive campaign to spotlight instances of such abuse and murder, and to pressure Congress to act on the bills to stop such situations from being repeated.

The groups raise concerns over the practice of marriage brokerage because they say there are approximately 500 websites that specialize in marketing women as submissive and willing to perform any act for a man. One website that advocates are targeting,, says, "[Here] Western Men can find sexy submissive Asian women, either conservative or very risqué Orientals, who believe in traditional forms of relationships.” The text of the site goes on to say, “Our lovely and sexy Filipina, Chinese, Thai and other Asians are selected for their loyalty and zero tolerance for divorce, et al. My subservient ladies will serve your needs as a traditional wife, girlfriend or even a causal [sic] friend with whom you can exchange videos and photos.”

The women’s organizations and their allies in Congress say such promises set up situations of emotional and physical abuse, and laws need strengthening to prevent women from suffering in these conditions. International marriage brokers could not be reached for comment, but on, the company says it is aiming to “end the loneliness of Western men and women” and blasts efforts to suppress the practice, saying doing so would undermine Democratic ideals that champion “free thought and ideas.”

While Indians marry less on mail-order bride websites than other ethnic groups, the international marriage broker bills would affect all American-born Indians who file for a fiancé visa for an Indian-born spouse. The measure would require the American citizen to undergo a criminal background check. The immigrating spouse would then be provided with any data gathered from the check, as well as information about what constitutes an abusive marriage and what recourse an immigrant spouse has in the United States.

“When a woman receives her fiancé visa, it would be clear under our legislation what the foreign woman’s legal rights are,” says Layli Miller-Muro, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, which specializes in providing immigrant woman and refugees legal protections in the United States. “Getting this legislation enacted is a top priority.”

Meanwhile, Shivali Shah, co-founder of the group Kiran, which serves domestically-abused South Asian women in North Carolina, is working to broaden protections for women, like Geeta, whose husbands are on H-1B visas. In these arrangements, a wife receives an H-4 visa, which precludes her from working until she receives a more-permanent visa status--a status that could take up to 10 years to obtain. The women who have these visas do not have the same protections under the 10-year-old Violence Against Women Act as other immigrant women, since they lack the right to petition for a green card on their own even if they can prove they are being abused. The Act aims to reduce the incidences of abuse by setting strict penalties for abusers, providing more federal funding for counseling services and battered women shelters, and increasing research into the causes of domestic violence.

Shah says the Violence Against Women Act needs to be amended to allow women with H-4 visas to self-petition the government if they are in an abusive relationship. She says problems with this visa process are extremely critical to correct, especially for Indians who enter the United States by this process in large numbers each year. “Any problem that this visa has is a problem for Indians.” Shah has found that Indians represent 40-45 percent of the 65,000 people coming to the United States annually on H-1B visas. Preliminary findings from a survey she is conducting on the issue show that 20-50 percent of clients of South Asian abuse-prevention groups have immigration problems stemming from the H-4 restrictions.

“These are women who speak English fluently, have college degrees and could work anywhere, but aren’t allowed to,” Shah says. “We’re trying to get them work authorization to prevent situations of financial abuse.”

Manu Raju is a political reporter in Washington covering Congress.

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