Breaking the Silence: Domestic Violence in the Immigrant Community

Cristina Tone of NJCDC and client Sylvia break their silence about their experiences with domestic violence as immigrant women. They have kept these painful stories to themselves for years, like many immigrant women do. By being brave enough to tell their stories of abuse and isolation, they are raising awareness on something that is rarely talked about.

Pain into Power from Montclair State Multimedia on Vimeo.

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Domestic Violence in the Immigrant Community from Alexyss Panfile on Vimeo.


The Hidden Side of the Immigration Debate

Immigrant survivors of domestic violence speak up about the toll current immigration policies have on them.

Domestic violence is an issue that is typically kept under wraps for many reasons. The topic itself makes people generally uncomfortable to be open about or acknowledge as being a serious issue. While it is an issue that needs to be addressed to help those who are victims, it is especially important that the undocumented victims of violence have a place to address it as well. In Paterson, New Jersey, two women who are immigrants and are now survivors of domestic violence break their silence on the issue.

Cristina Tone of the Neighborhood Help Center in the NJCDC came to the United States by herself when she was only 16 years old from Lima, Peru. She came a year after her father passed away and her mother’s heart attack because her mother could no longer afford to take care of her in Peru. Tone had step sisters who were already in the United States, and got a visa from them to come to New York by herself. Unfortunately, she was under the assumption that she would be able to go back to see her family in Peru, but that would not be possible.

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Cristina Tone of the Neighborhood Help Center.

“I was traumatized. I didn’t know when I was going to see my family again. So that was really painful for me,” Tone expressed.

Tone kept busy by going to school and participating in extracurricular activities. She did what she could to avoid the pain that was in her heart from losing her family and the fear of being undocumented.

A few years later, Tone met the first man she would eventually marry who is a United States citizen. They quickly fell in love and got married soon after meeting one another. Tone did not realize that he was a jealous person until after they were married. He abused alcohol, drugs, and eventually her. Tone explained that he used her emotions to manipulate her because he knew that she was in need of her papers. Instead of helping her like he said he would, he took advantage of her vulnerability. He isolated her by moving her hours away from her step sisters and mentally abused her.

After finding out that Tone was seeking help from other people for her legal status, the man physically abused her. Tone’s friend found out and helped take her out of the situation by bringing her to a psychologist for help. Tone realized the situation she was in was not safe and packed a bag of clothes, then went to New Jersey alone to start her life over again. That relationship lasted for three years.

“I believe that I had to go through that because I needed to learn and be there to experience that to change that pain into power, and to be able to help others. That’s how my journey started.” Tone said.

Soon after, Tone came to Paterson, New Jersey after hearing from a friend that there was help for abused women. She sought help from different non-profits but what disappointed when she realized the programs were not actually helping abused women. With this in mind, she worked hard toward her goal of helping others like her. She gained her citizenship, had a son, and worked multiple full-time jobs to support her new life.

“I was traumatized. I didn’t know when I was going to see my family again. So that was really painful for me.” -Cristina Tone 

Cristina Tone with her son.

Eventually, Tone found her place at the NJCDC in the Neighborhood Help Center. She now provides helps to other immigrants in Paterson with a multitude of problems ranging from helping with paperwork to healing from abuse.

Tone met her client who she became close friends with due to their similar experiences. To protect her identity, we will call her “Sylvia.” When she was 20 years old, Sylvia came to the United States with her children and then husband to seek a better life. After arriving to the United States, he quickly received his citizenship and refused to help her do the same. Instead, he abused her and kept her from making a life for herself in America.

According to Futures without Violence, “Forty-eight percent of Latinas in one study reported that their partner’s violence against them had increased since they immigrated to the United States.”


For Sylvia, that was the exact case. After dealing with the constant abuse, she fell into a despair and attempted to take her own life on three separate occasions. She has since left the abusive relationship, but still lives in fear daily because of her undocumented status and the trauma the abuse left on her. Luckily, she has found healing at the Neighborhood Help Center and has made it her safe place.

Helen Archontou is the CEO of the YWCA in Bergen County. She is also a social worker and college professor who specializes in gender violence.

“What very often happens is abusers use that immigration status to intimidate and control victims to push them to ensure that they will not go to the police, that they will not follow through on telling anyone about the crime that’s being committed to them” Archontou said.

In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was introduced and designed to help protect women against their abusers. Its reauthorization in 2000, 2005, and 2013 has improved the protection for those experiencing abuse.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, VAWA is “a landmark piece of legislation that sought to improve criminal justice and community based responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in the United States.

Activists rallying in support of VAWA in Washington, D.C. -Photo by Chip Somodevilla.

In 2013, Republicans sought to delay the re-authorization to exclude those in same sex relationships and those who are undocumented and are applying for visas. After much discourse over it, it was passed. However, women like Tone and Sylvia did not know this type of help existed. In addition, VAWA is up for reauthorization again and is in jeopardy.

“Although there were some extensions put in place, it still is not fully authorized and we are right at the precipice again for that to happen. We want to go forward and continue to grow and strengthen what we can put in place for them” Archontou explained.

Tone acknowledged the ongoing fear that is within the immigrant community to come forward about abuse they may be experiencing. She stressed that there is help within the Neighborhood Help Center in Paterson and that they do not have to suffer alone.

Photo Essay


Domestic Violence Resource Infographic

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To view and interact with the full infographic, click here.

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