Trapped in violence: Undocumented domestic abuse victims
PHOENIX – When her husband started hitting her, Juana knew it was wrong. But she stayed, fearing that since he was a U.S. citizen and she was undocumented he could make good on threats to have her deported so that she'd never see their daughter again.
"He would tell me he is American, born here, and I'm Mexican and I don't have papers," Juana said. "That's what he told me, that he was able to call immigration to deport me to Mexico, and because of fear of him taking my daughter away I would stay with him."
The abuse continued even after Juana got pregnant a second time, she said. Seven months in, a beating was so bad Juana that had to be hospitalized. At nine months, he gave her a black eye.
"I would feel bad because he didn't care that I was pregnant," Juana said in Spanish. "He would change for a few days and be calm and everything, but then he would begin again and it would hurt me a lot."
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Domestic violence affects women of every country, culture and income level, and victims are often reluctant to seek help for a variety of reasons.
When a woman is in the U.S. illegally, however, she will be even more reluctant to come forward, law enforcement officials and victims' advocates say. Undocumented immigrants as a group fear dealing with police, and some abusers use that fear as a lever, threatening to turn in their victims and separate them from children through deportation.
"When someone is not documented, of course there comes the immigration piece, the legality of it," said Silvia Meyer, a counselor at Phoenix's Family Advocacy Center. "The abuser will make the victim think or believe that she cannot do anything."
There is no way to measure how many undocumented women are in the United States, let alone how many of them experience domestic violence. They can't be recognized or counted until they come forward, and many stay silent.
But interviews with Arizona law enforcement officials, advocates, attorneys and victims revealed case after case where threats made undocumented victims stay with their abusers as violence escalated.
Besides Juana, Cronkite News conducted extensive interviews with three other domestic violence victims at a west Phoenix shelter run by Chicanos por la Causa: Karla, a permanent resident who reached out to her husband's relatives only to have them take his side; Jacqueline, who left shortly after the birth of her third child; and Brenda, who left to protect her young son.
To protect the women's identities, only their first names are used.
Fear and isolation
Undocumented women like Juana are often cut off from the community and don't know how or where to seek help. If they do report abuse, they face an unfamiliar legal system that's difficult to navigate in a foreign language.
Rene Siqueiros, a Phoenix immigration lawyer, said this isolation creates "levels of deterrence" against getting help.
"Within the actual relationship, they've already been isolated from the family because that's part of the cycle of domestic violence," Siqueiros said. "On a social level, they don't have any documents so they can't really go out and about freely, and on the economic level they can't really leave because they can't work."
Sgt. Fabian Pacheco of Tucson Police Department said the fear of reaching out to authorities, common among illegal immigrants and heightened by measures such as SB 1070, sets up abused women to be victimized twice.
"They're first assaulted by their significant other," Pacheco said. "Secondly they get victimized because they don't get access to police services out of fear of reporting that crime and then being deported."
For Juana, law enforcement helped prevent a potentially dangerous confrontation with her husband.
Nine months pregnant and shielding her black eye with sunglasses, Juana finally confided in her mother and aunt at a family gathering. They told her to go home normally and gather her daughter's documents and clothing and that they'd take her to the consulate. But her husband got suspicious.
When he attacked her, Juana called the police.
"I told them I wanted to get out of the house, my husband is very aggressive," she said.
The officers told her it was too late to file a report about the beating that caused her black eye because she didn't report it the day that it happened. But they talked to her husband.
"They told him that what he was doing was not OK," Juana said. "They reminded him that we had a daughter together and one on the way."
Then they helped Juana and her daughter leave.
Some abuse victims lack the family support available to Juana.
When her husband started hitting her, Karla didn't know where to go for help. A permanent resident, her application for citizenship depended on sponsorship from her husband.
Making things worse: Her family was in California, she had few friends in Arizona and she lived with her husband's parents, who took his side.
"I told her [the mother-in-law] he hit me. She said I'd asked for it," Karla said in Spanish. "She took the phone away from me and told me that her son was not going to be sent to jail because of me."
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It's because of situations like Karla's that advocates are stepping up efforts to reach friends and family members of victims, who are often the first to see signs of domestic violence – especially for undocumented women trying to live under the radar.
"Everyone thinks domestic violence is bad until the abusive person is their best friend, their brother, their employee. And then the victim is crazy, nagging, dramatic, and it doesn't exist," said Elizabeth Ditlevson, deputy director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Karla said feeling alone was the worst part of her experience. Without family support, permanent residency status through her husband offered little reassurance even before he kicked her out of his parents' house.
"I was really dependent on him, and I would get scared," she said. "I would tell myself, 'If he's not there, what am I going to do, what am I going to live from?'"
Left with nothing
Ideally, a child's birth is a joyous family occasion. But for Jacqueline, her third daughter's birth was yet another occasion for fear.
When her contractions started, Jacqueline knew she needed to go to the hospital. But her husband refused to take her or give her the car keys.
He finally agreed to take her – but even then, the constant intimidation and the threats Jacqueline lived with daily continued.
"In the hospital, he also threatened me that he was going to take my daughters away from me because I'm illegal," Jacqueline said in Spanish. "And I always was bearing with him because I am illegal."
Access to medical care was only one of many resources he withheld from Jacqueline and her daughters during their four-year relationship.
"He wouldn't give me money to go to the doctor, for groceries and what else," Jacqueline said. "He doesn't know about milk or diapers, he doesn't know about anything."
Undocumented women like Jacqueline cannot work legally in the United States.
"Sometimes the person who's the victim of domestic violence has no access to the financial resources because the abuser might be the one who has the control of the financial resources," said David Lujan, a Democratic state lawmaker who is an attorney for the nonprofit group Defenders of the Children. "So when the victim of abuse finally tries to leave the abuser suddenly they're out there with no resources."
At the hospital, Jacqueline was protective of her daughters and hesitant to discuss anything, even her own medical situation. She said hospital employees began to pick up on signs that something wasn't right and asked questions.
Gradually, in private, Jacqueline revealed her situation.
"On that same day the police arrived, and that same day I got out of there," Jacqueline said.
Her lack of resources wasn't an issue at Chicanos por la Causa's shelter.
She and her daughters moved into a private room and received three meals a day at no cost to them, though residents are expected to help prepare community meals and provide child care. The shelter also offers donated clothing.
"These families come with nothing, just with whatever they have on," said Maribel Castro, director of the shelter. "Everything is provided here. Their basic needs are met."
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Beyond the necessities of life, Jacqueline also gained access to counseling and legal advice, which is available in Spanish.
"Now I have to make my own decisions for me and my daughters, and it's what I'm trying to do," she said.
The fight started over text messages.
Brenda suspected her husband was cheating on her, and early one morning his phone kept going off. When she asked who was texting him, her husband slammed her against the wall. And that was just the beginning, she said.
"He started punching me and he started hitting me like I was a man," Brenda said.
Brenda came to the United States when she was 5. She met her husband, a permanent resident on track for citizenship, through his cousin, a friend.
The abuse escalated after they got married, she said.
But while he was beating her that morning, Brenda realized that somebody else saw.
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"My son was just watching everything. He was crying a lot," Brenda said. "There was so many things, just little things like that that I would forgive him about, but that was the last time that we were together, that I realized I shouldn't stay anymore because it's going to get worse."
The next day, Brenda had a split lip, scraped knee, bruises and marks around her neck.
She waited until her husband left for work. Then she packed her bags and called her godparents.
Leah Heathcoat, a legal advocate in Phoenix who works with domestic violence victims, said undocumented mothers grapple with the fear that they can lose their children if they are exposed to immigration officials, something that abusers who are in the U.S. legally can exploit.
"If she gets arrested or detained or anything like that, custody can and often does go to the citizen parent," Heathcoat said.
Undocumented women who report abuse do have legal options while they fight for custody. But that requires knowing the options exist, Heathcoat said, and taking the necessary steps is difficult without access to a trained advocate or immigration lawyer.
Too often, she said, isolation, language barriers and a lack of resources work against undocumented women who are abused. Tight budgets for the government and nonprofit groups that provide help make the situation even more difficult.
"You look at, on a large scale, the lack of culturally appropriate services, the lack of translation for these women," Heathcoat said. "There's not even enough as it stands now."
Heathcoat said more translation services and training at all levels, from judges to legal advocates, would help undocumented victims who don't know about their options.
Those who don't have access to help and accurate information can be manipulated by their abusers' threats during divorce and custody proceedings, said Lujan, the state lawmaker and attorney. Preying on a victim's lack of understanding of the legal system, an abuser tries to make the woman believe that he has the power to have her deported.
"That's not necessarily something a victim understands, and they often will succumb to that fear," Lujan said.
Brenda said that when she filed divorce papers, her husband requested mediation. Her husband admitted hitting her but said he made a mistake that would never happen again, that his citizenship status could help her, that she should come back to him.
But now Brenda was aware of a law that could allow her to stay with her son without depending on her husband.
Because they were married to U.S. citizens or green-card holders, Juana, Karla, Jacqueline and Brenda were all eligible to apply for temporary visas under the federal Violence Against Women Act.
Passed in 1994, the law helps local law enforcement address challenges to women's safety, including stalking and sex crimes, and gives undocumented victims of domestic violence legal options for staying in the U.S.
If they qualify, undocumented women can become their own sponsors for citizenship – and eliminate their abusers' power over their legal status.
Undocumented victims applying for visas under the Violence Against Women Act must meet two main criteria: They must help law enforcement with the domestic violence investigation, and they must be married to their abusers, who have to be U.S. citizens or green-card holders.
If they qualify, undocumented victims of domestic abuse can stay in the U.S. while their citizenship applications are processed. They can also hold jobs while they fight for custody of their children.
An immigration judge makes the final decision.
Out of 8,045 people who applied for visas in 2009 under the Violence Against Women Act, 6,374 qualified, according to a report by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
A different option referred to as a U-visa allows undocumented victims of domestic abuse to pursue citizenship if they aren't married to their abusers or if the abusers aren't U.S. citizens or legal residents.
Brenda said she doesn't know how she could have supported herself and her son without the law. The temporary work permit she received led to a night job.
"It's changing my life, and I'm sure it's changed a lot of people's lives," she said.
Juana, Karla, Jacqueline and Brenda took first steps toward getting out of abusive relationships despite the hurdles undocumented women face in doing so. But that doesn't guarantee that they will succeed, experts say.
"You're not going to find many happy endings," said Alesha Durfee, an assistant professor in Arizona State University's School of Social Transformation.
Durfee and Heathcoat have conducted research into domestic violence in general and as it relates to undocumented women. The results aren't promising.
First, on average a woman returns to her abuser seven times before leaving for good.
And undocumented women returning to abusive husbands who promise to help them gain citizenship often wind up disappointed. According to Durfee and Heathcoat's research, about three-quarters of U.S. citizens married to undocumented women never file legal paperwork to help them gain permanent residency or citizenship.
"That is staggering," Heathcoat said.
After leaving, women must learn once again how to make decisions for themselves, often while rebuilding shattered families and navigating an intimidating legal system. And for undocumented women, entering that legal system means risking detention and losing custody of their children. There's also the physical and emotional cost of living with violence and fear.
"They survive it and live through it, but the outcome is hardly ever what the woman envisions it to be or would want it to be," Heathcoat said.
For Jacqueline, the counseling she has received at the shelter has brought her peace, and she's optimistic she'll emerge a stronger person.
She wants undocumented women to realize they have options too.
"Now I know yes, I'm illegal, but I also have rights in this country," Jacqueline said.
She also hopes that her husband will change and be a part of their daughter's life.
"It's the only thing I expect from him," Jacqueline said. "But if it's not possible, well, I will try anything possible for my daughters not to feel that emptiness."
Sitting in her shelter room while her daughters played, Jacqueline said she wants to improve her English. Then she can become a businesswoman – providing for her daughters herself.
Brenda wants to study to become a counselor who helps women and children. She'll also rebuild family ties after years missing gatherings including birthday parties.
Now she's navigating three court processes while living at the shelter – a divorce, custody arrangements and an application for U.S. citizenship – so that she can raise her son in Arizona.
Brenda said her husband writes her on MySpace – that he has cancer, that he's selling drugs, that he wants to get back together through court mediation. Brenda said she doesn't know why he tells her these things, and she worries how they'll affect her son.
"I want his father to be a part of his life," Brenda said. "I know my son wants him in his life too."
Karla also faces a custody battle. She said her husband kicked her out of the house when he found out about her plans to leave and keeps her from seeing their two daughters.
While she is able to talk with the girls daily by phone, Karla worries about how long it will be until she sees them again.
"I miss my family," Karla said. "I would like to be more independent and look for an apartment I can live in and, if I get my daughters back, have them live with me there."
She also wants to return to school. Back in Guadalajara, she studied fashion, but her experiences have changed her goals.
"I want to be a police officer … because of all the injustice I've seen in my life," she said.
Juana regrets hiding the truth as long as she did.
"I was afraid he would act on his threats of deporting me back to Mexico," Juana said. "Thank God I got out of it alive."
While she misses things in Mexico such as the food she grew up with, Juana said she likes being in a place where her daughters, both U.S. citizens, can continue with school.
"God willing I will be able to get a permit or something to be able to be here with my daughters."