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Life had brought Mara* thousands of miles from her birthplace on the Asian continent, but as the spring of 2020 simmered toward summer, her world was closing in. The COVID-19 pandemic had not spawned the fear and anxiety that consumed nearly every aspect of her daily life. Her nightmare had begun much earlier – and in her own home.

Mara had come to the U.S. some time earlier, accompanied by her children and future husband. The romance had not lasted long.

After the marriage, her husband became very controlling and verbally abusive to both her and her children,” explainedNaznin Saifi, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC), which assisted Mara last year. Saifi described how Mara’s husband would not let her leave the house without his permission. He also prevented her from having any access to money or other financial resources, so that she could not even purchase food for herself and her children.

And if Mara dared to protest, stand up for her kids, or do anything – intentionally or otherwise – to upset her husband?

“He would threaten to have her and her children deported,” Saifi said.

Neither this threat nor the storyline is unusual among the cases handled by APALRC. Saifi noted that physical and emotional violence in domestic situations constitute a major focus area of her organization’s work. APALRC aims to bridge language and cultural barriers that prevent victims from understanding their rights and, particularly in the case of new immigrants, dispel myths about the immigration system. The group often helps immigrant women such as Mara file petitions under the Violence Against Women Act, invoking provisions designed to ensure those fleeing domestic violence do not suffer the deportation their abusers so often threaten.

But APALRC’s scope stretches beyond domestic violence. The group addresses a broad swath of immigration and naturalization issues, including consular processing, employment authorizations, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and family-based petitions, along with T and U visas. APALRC also helps low-income members of the Asian and Pacific American communities navigate housing procedures and understand their rights as tenants. 

A multi-lingual legal helpline, legal interpreter project, and – in non-pandemic times – walk-in legal clinics throughout suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C., are also offered. Saifi notes that the need for legal professionals who speak Asian and Pacific languages is always high, and APALRC welcomes volunteers.

When one Pacific American couple worried over a missing 2020 stimulus payment, APALRC advocates reached out to their U.S. Congressperson and, together, worked to uncover the issue and resolve the matter.

Saifi says that her primary goal in this work is to increase communication and understanding  of legal matters within the Asian and Pacific American community – to break the silence on troubling issues, and increase access to justice for all.

*Name changed to protect client confidentiality.