Effects of IPV on Immigrant Latinas


Intimate partner violence (IPV) is defined as domestic violence perpetuated by someone onto another person in an intimate relationship. IPV can take different forms, such as physical, verbal, sexual, or psychological abuse. It is so common in the United States that one in four women has experienced IPV at a point in their life (Alvarez & Fedock, 2018). IPV affects women of all ages, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and cultures, yet not one person has experienced it in the same way as another. IPV is not a new concept. It has been researched and studied since the 1960s. However, in recent years, more light has been shed on the topic due to an increasing prevalence rate. Reports of IPV have increased on different media platforms; however, critics continue to highlight that there are minimal efforts to help survivors of IPV. Despite light being shed on this issue, there is also very little known about effects of IPV on specific populations, such as immigrant Latinas, whether documented or documented, due to its complexity and the vulnerability associated with the situation.

For immigrant Latinas, the abuse and threats experienced can be different from their American counterparts. Immigrant Latinas, like others, experience isolation from friends and family, but their abusers are also usually ending long-distance relationships, such as family members in home countries. Immigrant Latinas are also kept isolated because of a language barrier which helps prevent communication with people around them. Undocumented immigrant Latinas live under the constant threat of deportation; this makes them especially vulnerable to IPV as they are manipulated into staying in the relationship. Similarly, abusers of documented immigrant Latinas will threaten to destroy documentation used to prove their legality, such as passports, residency cards, driver’s license, health insurance information, etc. to keep them in the relationship. Abusers will even attempt to fool women into believing that they may lose their citizenship or residency if they report the abuse and/or threaten to not sign citizenship/residency paperwork. Immigrant Latinas may also experience financial abuse differently. Undocumented immigrant Latinas may not be able to find a job and must be financially dependent on their partner. Documented immigrant Latinas, on the other hand, may be able to obtain a job, but may be at risk of getting fired. Abusers harass their partners by calling their employers and falsely insist that their partner is undocumented, so they are fired. Immigrant Latinas are also threatened with their children as abusers threaten to hurt or take them away if they attempt to report the abuse. Overall, these women face many difficult situations while in IPV relationships, making it extremely difficult to leave these relationships.

Prevalence and risk factors of IPV in immigrant Latinas

Immigrant Latinas are at a higher risk for violence (Adams & Campbell, 2012). Though many women are at risk of IPV, immigrant Latinas are much more vulnerable to IPV, and the risk increases if they are undocumented. One of the reasons for this is the lack of support systems within the United States. Many of them have immigrated in hope of a better job and/or future and have left behind their families. This social isolation makes them vulnerable to IPV. Another factor is the inability to understand or fluently speak English. Many, if not all, of these women have immigrated only with the ability to speak Spanish or a dialect. IPV has also been found to be correlated with the use of substances, drugs, and/or alcohol, as well as mental health issues, though substance use is not a strong predictor of IPV (Finno-Velasquez & Ogbonnaya 2017; Gonçalves & Mato, 2016). In most IPV relationships, the abuser in the relationship is found to have been intoxicated or under the influence of a substance (Gonçalves & Mato, 2016). Because of their experience with IPV, these women are at a greater risk of poor physical and mental health conditions (Finno-Velasquez & Ogbonnaya, 2017). Many women in these types of relationships may experience PTSD or depression, but may not receive treatment for their symptoms or trauma due to a lack of resources or lack of accessibility. IPV, if serious enough, can also lead to death.

Women may experience shame when they leave their partners and do not want others to think badly of them or do not want to bring shame to their family by getting a divorce/separating from their abuser.

Barriers for immigrant Latinas

Though many women have experienced IPV, not all women are able to leave the relationship. Many women stay in the relationships out of fear. Many fear that their abuser may move forward with threats. Other women may fear the possibility of an increase in violence, or the possibility of death associated with leaving the relationship (Cravens, Whiting, & Aamar, 2015). Sometimes, it may feel safer to stay in the relationship, especially when children are involved. Culture also plays an important role for why women stay in IPV relationships. Most immigrant Latina women grow up in patriarchal societies that highlight and normalize stereotypical gender roles (Messing, Amanor-Boadu, Cavanaugh, Glass, & Campbell, 2013). These gender roles make them dependent on their spouses/partners as they are unable to find a job or go to school which also makes it harder to navigate an unknown world on their own. Inability to access resources is also a reason why most women stay in IPV situations. If these women are unable to access resources due to their immigration status or because of the fear of repercussions, then these resources are deemed worthless to them. Locations that lack translation capabilities or knowledge of the law are examples of worthless resources to immigrant Latinas hoping to escape IPV (Kim, Draucker, Bradway, Grisso, & Sommers, 2017). There are also women who stay in these relationships due to the hope that their partner will change their behavior and attitudes. Most of the time, women will correlate the abuser’s behavior to the use of substances or alcohol and will hold out hope that the violence/abuse will end once they stop using. In addition to this, shame tends to play a very important role in these women’s lives. Some women may be unable to keep their jobs because of the shame brought on by the bruises left by the physical abuse. Women may experience shame when they leave their partners and do not want others to think badly of them or do not want to bring shame to their family by getting a divorce/separating from their abuser. There are several barriers to leaving an IPV relationship as an immigrant Latina.

Interventions and support systems

Many women have found that it is extremely hard to find resources that will help them overcome IPV. For women who are immigrants and Latinas, finding resources is much harder and increasingly so if they are undocumented. However, studies have found that immigrant Latinas are most likely to use informal social networks than any other resources. Some of these resources are as follows:

Family and friends. Most of the time, the parents of immigrant Latinas may still reside in their country of origin while other family members such as siblings have also immigrated and therefore contribute to the overcoming of IPV. Siblings are usually the first to find out about violence in a relationship, therefore, it makes it easier for immigrant Latinas to turn to their siblings and ask for help. Siblings help provide the emotional and financial support that immigrant Latinas need at the time. They play a nonjudgmental role and help women tell their parents (back home) about the experience (Kyriakakis, 2014).

Parents of immigrant Latinas may also offer these women the emotional support that they need to leave violent relationships and ensure that they do not return. If following traditional family values, a woman may feel forced into staying in an abusive relationship. However, if they feel they have the support of their parents, women are more likely to feel strong enough to leave. In most situations, survivors of IPV are most likely to share their experience with their mothers first. Parental support helps lessen the shame that women may be feeling about having to leave their partner. However, it is important to note that communication with family may be difficult, especially if the abuser has maintained constant isolation.

Friends can also be a very important resource. Latinas who have experienced IPV feel more comfortable talking to female friends who have experienced similar situations. By talking to their friends, these women experience very little judgment to no judgment at all. They feel that these friends are much more understanding than telling someone who might be married or in a happy relationship (Kyriakakis, 2014).

Community resources. Culturally, the church is a place where many Latinas go to receive guidance and help in difficult times. For many, it may also be a place of refuge. Studies have found that assistance from churches resulted in mixed responses from women seeking help. Some women felt they were able to get assistance from the church, while others felt it was a barrier. The church proved to be a barrier for some women because they felt that the clergy’s goal was to fix the marriage rather than help them leave the abuse (Fuchsel, 2012). Depending on the religion, pastors of the church may tell these women that they are responsible for resolving the violence or they may be told that they must do as their husbands say. Studies have found that church pastors’ responses are a result of the lack of knowledge related to IPV and they must first learn to differentiate between IPV and matrimonial problems (Fuchsel, 2012).

Studies have shown that one of the least successful types of interventions for immigrant Latinas has been the police department. Immigrant Latinas are less likely to call the police for help than their American counterparts. Less than 30% of women surveyed from a group of 230 reported calling the police when experiencing IPV and were less likely to call if they had a temporary legal status, or if they were undocumented (Cheng & Lo, 2019). However, those with children who were exposed to IPV were more likely to call the police, overcoming the fear of possible deportation. In this same study, women who called the police also highlighted that police intervention was not helpful. Though their arrival time was adequate, they found that police would almost always only talk to their abuser. One of the reasons for this was language, as many spoke little to no English (Ammar, Orloff, Dutton, & Aguilar-Hass, 2005). Other studies have also found that immigrant women did not receive adequate attention by police departments, and often felt overlooked and ignored by them (Dumitrescu, 2018). These experiences only increased their distrust of police and the judicial system.

Therapy. Talk therapy has helped and continues to help individuals who have experienced difficult circumstances in their life. Talk therapy can take the form of group therapy and individual therapy. Both group and individual therapy have been found to be helpful to immigrant Latinas (Molina, 2006). Domestic violence support groups allow women to not feel isolated and be able to identify support which in turn allows them to feel comfortable sharing their experience with others (Molina, Lawrence, Azhar-Miller, & Rivera, 2009).


IPV can be very dangerous and harmful. Because of their immigration status, immigrant Latinas are more vulnerable to IPV. They may suffer physical, psychological, financial, and sexual abuse by their partners, friends, families, coworkers, even strangers. They face many barriers when attempting to seek resources due to their language capabilities, financial dependency, fear, and lack of culturally available resources. Despite the multiple barriers they face, studies have found resources that can be prove useful to them. However, research is still needed to identify more specific effects and additional resources that can be used. In addition to this, clinicians and other experts who encounter these women need to be informed and must learn to provide culturally appropriate services as this a very vulnerable population.

Jacqueline Florian, MA, is an AAMFT Professional Member and associate marriage and family therapist who provides mental health services to children and families in marginalized communities. Her research focuses on the impact of separation and detention on the parent-child relationship. As a first-generation Latina, Florian is aware of the struggles that Latinx families face and has made it her goal to advocate for the BIPOC community. She is also a doctoral student at Alliant International University, Los Angeles.


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Alvarez, C., & Fedock, G. (2018). Addressing intimate partner violence with Latina women: A call for research. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 19(4), 488-493. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838016669508

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Cheng, T. C., & Lo, C. C. (2019). Physical intimate partner violence. Journal of Comparative Studies, 50(3), 229-241. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26843176

Cravens, J., Whiting, J., & Aamar, R. (2015). Why I stayed/left: An analysis of voices of intimate partner violence on social media. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 37(4), 372-385. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10591-015-9360-8

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Finno-Velasquez, M., & Ogbonnaya, I. N. (2017). National estimates of intimate partner violence and service receipt among Latina women with child welfare contact. Journal of Family Violence, 32(7), 669-682. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-017-9912-9

Fuchsel, C. L. M. (2012). The catholic church as a support for immigrant Mexican women living with domestic violence. Social Work & Christianity, 39(1), 66-87. Retrieved from http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.alliant.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=72371347&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Gonçalves, M., & Matos, M. (2016). Prevalence of violence against immigrant women: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of Family Violence, 31(6), 697-710. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-016-9820-4

Kim, T., Draucker, C. B., Bradway, C., Grisso, J. A., & Sommers, M. S. (2017). Somos hermanas del mismo dolor (we are sisters of the same pain): Intimate partner sexual violence narratives among Mexican immigrant women in the United States. Violence Against Women, 23(5), 623-642. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801216646224

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Messing, J. T., Amanor-Boadu, Y., Cavanaugh, C. E., Glass, N. E., & Campbell, J. C. (2013). Culturally competent intimate partner violence risk assessment: Adapting the danger assessment for immigrant women. Social Work Research, 37(3), 263-275. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/svt019

Molina, O. (2006). Divorce and domestic violence among undocumented Latina immigrants. Family Violence Sexual Assault Bulletin, 22(3-4), 13-21.

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