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Gaslighting: can it be extreme enough for VAWA?

Published on February 2019 | By Mark NeJame - Orlando Litigation Attorney and Rosa Melia-Acevedo

As an immigration attorney, part of my job is to find creative solutions to people’s immigration problems. Immigration has been a very hot topic plaguing the various media outlets, including television and social platforms alike, concerning predominantly illegal immigration.

However, immigration is far more complex than an invisible border separating countries or a person’s manner of entry into the U.S. At its heart, immigration is humanitarian and from that foundation the U.S. has established laws and regulations to assist and benefit immigrants who experience a suffering far too common today: domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Specifically, Congress passed and former President Clinton enacted the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) of 1994 into law, which is intended in part to combat violence against immigrant women (and men) and provide protection to those who have suffered violent abuses. In 1994, violent abuse was very much seen as a physical affliction. However as we have seen, through the necessary increase of mental health awareness, someone can be a victim of violent abuse albeit lacking a physical affliction.

As a result, the Department of Homeland Security included in its VAWA regulations language to protect those who are also victims of extreme cruelty. Extreme cruelty is such an ambiguous concept especially when coupled with an “invisible” affliction. However, one can be successful in VAWA cases where the victim has been subjected to psychological abuse or exploitation such as gaslighting, perpetrated by the U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident parent or spouse.

Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic often times used by an abuser to gain power over their victim. At its core, gaslighting is a struggle for power and control. The abuser overpowers their victim not through physical force but something far worse; the deterioration of their sense of self, leading to a codependency so intense that it creates an excessive emotional or psychological dependency to the abuser. The manipulation begins subtly so that the victim is not aware of the brainwashing-taking place. Gaslighting begins to chip away at the victim’s perception of reality and sanity as well as their identity and self-worth.

For anyone, being a victim of a crime is life altering. For an immigrant, the fear of retribution for reporting an “invisible” crime leaves them feeling hopeless. As a result, many immigrants remain in these manipulative relationships because of false hope, given by the abuser, that it will get better and out of fear that they will be returned to a country that many have fled due to violence.

Gaslighting as it relates to immigration is, more often times than not, used by a U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident spouse against their immigrant spouse as a way of manipulating the spouse to remain in the mentally abusive relationship. A classic gaslighting technique in the immigration context involves the U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident spouse or parent

threatening to call immigration authorities and report falsehoods against the immigrant in exchange for the immigrant not reporting said psychological abuse to authorities or leaving the relationship altogether.

VAWA cases based on psychological abuse such as gaslighting are successful in great part due to amazing mental health professionals but also brave victims who are able to realize that the mental manipulation they have been subjected to is just as cruel and harmful as physical abuse.

Getting to the truth as to an alleged abused person’s claim is essential on not only legal grounds, but humanitarian ones as well. To ignore violence and abuse, even psychological, is not who we are as a country and as a result regulations are in place to protect our immigrant population that are physically and psychologically abused.

Originally Published at: Orlando Style Magazine

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