As lawmakers continue to use immigration and sexual assault to incite polarizing political discussions, Austin-based nonprofit Lone Star Victims Advocacy Project stands firmly on the side of respect and compassion. The organization's work is rooted in the belief that no human being, regardless of their immigration status, should be forced to endure domestic violence or sexual abuse, and that survivors should be honored, believed, and supported when coming forward.
LSVAP pursues its mission by offering free legal services to immigrant victims of violence in rural Texas communities. It also provides education and training for law enforcement, shelter staff, and other community stakeholders on preventing and responding to incidents of abuse.
Director Glenaan O’Neil and deputy director Seve Kale founded LSVAP as a way to expand legal services offered by a nonprofit the two worked at previously, while also enhancing advocacy initiatives.
“It’s hard enough for an English-speaking U.S. citizen to receive support and services after leaving an abusive relationship,” Kale says. “Immigrant survivors — especially in rural areas — face an inordinate amount of barriers at every turn. Abusers threaten them with deportation, responding officers may not speak Spanish and may require a child to translate, and shelter staff may not speak Spanish or have any culturally competent resources available.”
Since its inception in 2017, LSVAP has helped 800 survivors of abuse. While each case is unique, much of LSVAP’s time and energy is spent on training local law enforcement in order to get U Visa Certifications which grants victims of a severe crime temporary immigration status.
Another important service LSVAP provides is preparing and submitting VAWA Self-Petitions. The VAWA Self-Petition gives back control to those who qualify for family-based immigration, but are being abused by the U.S. citizen or permanent resident with whom they have a qualified relationship.
“Our work allows immigrant survivors to provide for themselves and their families, and recover from violence without the fear of deportation hanging over their heads,” says Kale. “Receiving immigration status and the right to work are imperative when it comes to breaking the cycle of violence.”
While balancing a case load, LSVAP regularly performs outreach with domestic violence shelter staff, law enforcement, churches, clinics, and other community organizations that have contact with the immigrant population. A majority of clients are referred to them through local shelters and law enforcement.
“Our clients mostly do not speak English and may not know how the criminal justice system works, and the majority live in daily fear of coming to the attention of authorities and being deported. It takes, in my opinion, an incredible act of bravery to come forward in those circumstances,” says O’Neil. “We should honor the survivors who come forward by providing them with support, not trying to poke holes in their stories.”
With a staff of just four full-time employees, LSVAP relies on donations to provide clients with needed support. These donations help cover filing fees, which are costly and can be prohibitive for those living in poverty who want to obtain immigration status. LSVAP is also able to expand their reach exponentially with the help of volunteers, and they have remote opportunities available, especially for those who are bilingual.
“We work hard to make sure that our clients take ownership of their cases, and see that when their cases are approved by immigration that’s due to their own hard work," says O’Neil. "Watching the positive change in their self-esteem throughout that process brings me a lot of joy. Knowing, too, that the education and advocacy work that we provide makes change that goes beyond our cases and will continue to make an impact for folks we may never meet makes me feel incredibly proud.”