It's Time to Protect Undocumented Men From Abuse by Their Spouses | Opinion

When most Americans think of domestic violence, they picture a woman at the mercy of a violent man, but the truth about domestic violence against men is finally being recognized. Recent studies reveal that male victims of intimate partner violence are wildly underreported. About one in 10 men said they have experienced some form of partner abuse, including stalking, physical violence, and sexual assault.

Here in the United States, one population is uniquely and surprisingly vulnerable — the undocumented male.

In fact, thousands of undocumented men are threatened and controlled by their American spouses every day. Their ability to stay in this country depends on their American spouses petitioning for them.

The way it works under U.S. immigration law is that an undocumented person must rely on their American spouse or adult child to initiate their immigration process. (An American sibling or lawful permanent resident can file a petition, too, but it's rare.) If your spouse refuses to petition for you? You're not getting papers. And if a marital spat goes off the rails? She could call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on you and have you deported.

In my work as an immigration attorney, I face the fallout from this tangled arrangement daily.

An Undocumented Immigrant
An undocumented immigrant peeps inside a shelter home in San Antonio, Texas, on June 28, 2022. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

I have seen spouses who were turned into sex slaves by their own partners.

I have seen women sic ICE on the father of their own children.

I have even seen women demand their husband's earnings from the jobs he picked up after standing outside Home Depot. These men hand over the cash, hanging on to the hope that one day, they'll live free after their wives finally petition for them.

These aren't one-off cases. In my first-hand experience: Seven out of 10 of my male clients have suffered extreme cruelty from their American wives.

This problem isn't new either. Congress took steps to reduce the abuse of immigrant wives when it enacted the Violence Against Women Act in the 1990s. Congress broadened the law's protection to include male victims of domestic abuse in 2000. Yet despite these corrective measures, the problem persists because the petition process has never changed.

As one client of mine confided with U.S. immigration officials, "I try my best to never upset her...because when we argue she threatens to have me deported and she tells me I will never see our kids again. She says that because I am undocumented, I will never win against her in court and I will have no right to see our kids, and I cannot imagine life without my children."

In another harrowing situation, when my undocumented client's marriage to his American wife fell apart, she forced his undocumented children (her step-children) to choose between her and their "illegal" dad—a Hobson's choice. They chose mom, who promised to petition for them. She threw my client out of the family home he'd bought. With no place left to go, he began living in his car. Years later, when he nearly died in a work-related accident, he called his now-adult children for a ride home from the hospital. They told him to call an Uber.

You may wonder — just why is the system designed this way? Why can't an immigrant spouse petition for himself?

Our existing petition process was established in the late 1800s, when women were regarded as a man's property in many ways. Until 1988, women couldn't even get a business loan without a male co-signer, so it's easy to see how the social norms of yesteryear influenced our immigration laws.

This petition process is still followed today, and American women can now petition for their foreign husbands. But aside from making sure that the American spouse keeps the upper hand, there is no reason for continuing it.

If we allowed the right to self-petition — where the immigrant files a petition himself, based on his marriage to an American — we would not see an increase in fraudulent marriages. Our government already has a system for verifying the authenticity of a marriage, totally independent of the American spouse's involvement.

Allowing self-petitions also won't increase the possibility of immigrants becoming a burden on society. In fact, the current system keeps more immigrants below the poverty line and in need of social services. If a man cannot petition for himself and he remains undocumented, most state laws prevent him from getting a driver's license and car insurance. Federal laws prevent him from getting a Social Security number and permission to legally work. Being forced to live below the grid invites crime, makes conditions ripe for trafficking, and intensifies the poverty issues that Congress has created the T and U-visas to combat, both aimed at putting victims of crimes on a path to a U.S. green card.

Whatever your beliefs about immigration, codified abuse must go. Today, millions of undocumented immigrants are here. Tens of thousands are married to abusive Americans. And our immigration laws perpetuate this abuse.

It's time for a new right to self-petition.

Hillary Walsh is the attorney and owner of New Frontier, focusing on protecting people navigating Immigration Law in the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.