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Battered Immigrants Fear Police as Much as Husbands

Abused undocumented women in the U.S. rarely know they have legal recourse to leave their spouses without leaving the country.

October 16, 2005|Amanda Keim | Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX — Maria never saw her husband explode until their wedding night, when he got angry at a guest and kicked a door. Five years later, he was pointing a gun at her head, threatening to shoot their two young children and saying he would harm Maria's family if she reported him.

Then the rapes began.

Maria was too afraid to report the abuse to the police. As an undocumented immigrant living in southern Arizona, she feared she would be deported if she had any contact with authorities.

Untold numbers of immigrant women in the United States suffer at the hands of men who know their wives are terrified of being forced to leave the country, and they exploit that fear.

Spouses who are here legally often use immigration status as a control tactic to keep victims from reporting abuse, said Montserrat Caballero, director of Su Voz Vale, (Your Voice Counts), a bilingual and bicultural program at the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault. The program offers therapy, crisis intervention and referral services, primarily to Latinas.

In Maria's case, her husband refused to file her immigration papers. Maria lacked legal status even though she had lived in the U.S. since she was 9, said Valerie Hink, an immigration lawyer with Southern Arizona Legal Aid who began handling Maria's case about eight years ago.

Hink, who recounted the details of the case. She would not disclose Maria's full name, citing privacy concerns.

"He would keep the children and she would be sent back to Mexico," Hink said as she looked over Maria's file. "We hear that threat all the time."

Experts say undocumented immigrants who are abused often have no idea that legal remedies are available to them.

"If you're an immigrant, there's an idea of 'You're breaking the law, you don't have any rights,' which is wrong. You have equal protection under the law," Caballero said.

If an undocumented immigrant is married to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, the spouse can sponsor a petition for the immigrant to obtain legal status. But in abusive situations, the spouse often threatens to report the immigrant or her relatives to authorities, said Seattle attorney Ann Benson, director of the Washington Defender Assn.'s Immigration Project.

"They're essentially held hostage in this marriage because of their immigration status," Benson said. "Their abusive spouses kept green cards from them to wield control."

Most immigrants don't know that the 1994 Violence Against Women Act gives immigrant women whose abusive husbands are legal U.S. residents a way out of their situation, experts say.

The act allows immigrants who can prove they have been victims of domestic abuse, and would otherwise be able to gain legal status, to self-petition for a green card.

In fiscal 2004, the U.S. approved 5,076 such petitions, which accounted for 76% of the petitions the government took action on. Since fiscal 2005 began in October, the government has approved at least 4,300 petitions.

When Congress renewed the act in 2000, it added a provision to let undocumented immigrants who were victims of various violent crimes, including domestic abuse, apply for temporary "U-visas" as long as they agreed to help prosecutors.

No U-visa applications have been filed, because the government is still developing regulations for the visas, said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

But ignorance of the law is also a factor, and many immigrant women continue to live in fear.

That was the case with a woman interviewed by legal assistant Margot Mendelson for a 2004 report on battered undocumented immigrants. Even as police arrested her husband, a legal resident, the woman, identified only by the alias Margarita, hid behind her house rather than face the authorities, Mendelson wrote. Being undocumented, Margarita was convinced she could be deported if police found her.

Margarita's story is representative of many battered immigrants, said Mendelson, who works in the San Francisco Area.

"It's just this constant reinforcement that 'I am safe here and you are not,' " she said.

Most immigrants have few resources in such a situation, said Cecilia Menjivar, a sociology professor at Arizona State University. They don't have access to the phone numbers of agencies that could help them because they can't find the information in their native language or don't know whom to ask, she said.

"What is a woman going to do if she reports an abusive partner and has nowhere to go? She's not going to report it," Menjivar said.

Few programs cater to different cultural backgrounds or even know how immigration laws apply to domestic abuse cases, especially in rural areas, said Caballero, of Su Voz Vale.

Phoenix immigration attorney Dori Zavala said very few of her clients knew she could help them file a petition under the violence act.

"They're guided a lot by what they hear in their community," Zavala said. "It would be good if there was more public knowledge about it."

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