Immigrant Survivors of Abuse Struggle Within a Changing System
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"I can scream, and nobody can hear me."
The walls had been closing in on Monica Bejar for years. She and her husband had both crossed over the U.S.-Mexico border for work, like countless other migrants. But only he had secured a green card. For over a decade, Monica's hopes of obtaining legal status depended, as far as she knew, completely on the man who battered her.
A host of legal binds tightened the grip of abuse. Bejar had banked on the hope that her husband would help her become a legal resident. Instead, to prove a point, he tore up her immigration paperwork and threatened to report her to authorities if she tried to leave. She feared losing her children.
The turning point came one day in a flash of realization: Bejar caught her children watching as she bled from a fresh wound, inflicted by their father's hand.
"I didn't want to put my children through that any more," she recalls in a recent interview.
After seeking help from an immigrant advocacy group, International Institute of the East Bay, Bejar learned of a narrow legal channel available to women in her situation. Through the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), she was able to leave her husband and petition for a green card independently, as a survivor of domestic violence.
"Women like myself, [who] immigrate from another country ... We don't know that we are protected by the law if somebody's abusing us," says Bejar, 37.
Poverty and harsh immigration policies leave undocumented immigrants vulnerable to all forms of abuse, from economic exploitation to more intimate forms of oppression. For those who live with domestic violence, social isolation only amplifies the terror at home.
Despite the general political hostility toward illegal immigration, Washington has opened special protections for undocumented immigrants who have survived domestic violence. Yet the legal framework is growing more complex and in some ways, more precarious. Since last year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has broadened one path to legal status under VAWA, yet also solidified barriers for survivors seeking recourse through the criminal justice system.
A Clearer Path
Over a decade ago, lawmakers recognized that undocumented immigrants could be held hostage in abusive marriages because they depended on their spouses as green-card sponsors. The "self-petition" process under the Violence Against Women Act enables survivors to attain legal status independently. But it's not as simple as it looks.
Historically, a technical quirk in the statute led to uneven implementation. In some areas, officials applied a narrow reading of the law in the context of other overlapping immigration statutes. The restrictive interpretation required some survivors -- essentially, those who entered the country illegally since early 1998 -- to leave the country before petitioning. Once outside U.S. borders, some could potentially be subject to further immigration rules, like a punitive long-term bar on reentering the country. Self-petitioning would basically be a moot option: women would have to leave behind their jobs, homes and children indefinitely, just to secure legal status through VAWA.
Advocates argued that abuse survivors should be shielded from those strictures, pointing out that Congress specifically amended VAWA in 2000 to broadly permit applicants to remain legally in the United States.
In April, the government released new, clarified guidelines to ensure that battered immigrant women can petition from inside the United States.
Susan Reed, an immigration attorney in Michigan, says these new guidelines "give us clarity that we have not had for the last several years in our district."
The government's move follows the original intent of the VAWA self-petition, she adds: Congress had decided that "it's more important ... that women not be trapped in domestic violence situations because of their immigration status, than it is that long ago, they broke the immigration law in some way.'"
New Rules, New Barriers
Aside from VAWA, undocumented immigrant abuse survivors may also seek legal relief through the so-called U-Visa. Established for immigrants who are victims of crime, the visa grants legal status and work authorization in exchange for cooperation with law enforcement. In domestic violence cases, the U-Visa comes into play as a last resort -- when the abuse is severe enough to trigger police intervention.
Though survivors have been filing for U-Visas since 2000, the applications effectively remained in limbo for years, in the absence of official regulations for granting the visas. Under pressure from advocacy groups, the government finally issued formal regulations last fall.
But the new rules bring new hurdles.
The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a California-based advocacy group, has filed a lawsuit contending that the rules are harmfully rigid. One of the challenged provisions, for example, requires that a supervisor or head of an agency provide "certification" of an applicant's cooperation with law enforcement, within six months prior to the filing date.
Previously, in many cases, immigration officials used more elastic, ad-hoc screening policies to grant temporary "interim" relief to many survivors.
Angela Viramontes, a lawyer with the Center for Human Rights, says the current certification standard imposes a needless bureaucratic burden, especially since it may take several months to gather the required evidence and documentation of the abuse.
Supervisors and agency heads, Viramontes adds, may have little personal stake in assisting survivors. By contrast, "the lower-level officer, who goes to their home and interviews a woman and investigates the crime, is going to be much more familiar with the facts. That officer is in a much better position to determine whether or not the woman cooperated with law enforcement because that officer actually investigated the matter."
A higher-level official may have more clout, but she says, "I just don't think they have the same connection or the incentive to really go out of their way and help this person, because they don't know the survivor, and they don't know anything about the case."
Gail Pendleton, co-founder of the National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women, the organization that worked with Congress to create the U-Visa, acknowledges that "there are still issues in the implementation of the regulations that we are working out. But so far [Citizenship and Immigration Services] has proven amenable to hearing about problems from the field and attempting to fix those problems as promptly as possible." For instance, she says the agency is moving toward removing fees tied to immigration violations that are levied on applicants.
As federal authorities work out the U-Visa's kinks, some advocates still worry the regulations will only aggravate the struggles survivors face. A drawn-out, tedious legal process could impede a woman from overcoming the trauma of abuse. The longer it takes to get work authorization and find stable employment, the harder it is for a survivor to become independent from an abuser who supported her financially.
Susan Bowyer, an attorney with International Institute of the East Bay who has worked on hundreds of U-Visa cases, says the new regulations, coupled with inconsistent implementation by agencies, could push clients into unprecedented uncertainties. "It's difficult," she says, "to tell battered women, whose abuse is so bad that they wanted to have their abusers arrested, that it might be a year before they get work authorization."
While advocacy groups work to make VAWA and the U-Visa more accessible to immigrant domestic violence survivors, policy alone cannot dissolve all the barriers that keep them trapped in violent relationships. Fears of immigration law overlap with more nuanced, entrenched forms of alienation.
Mirjana Omeragic, an immigrant case manager with Mosaic Family Services, Inc., a Dallas-based social service organization, says that in close-knit immigrant communities, a woman may fear being stigmatized or shamed for defying an abusive spouse. Abusers, she says, typically warn their partners, "'If you report the abuse, you will destroy our family,'" convincing the woman that "she has to keep family together at any cost."
The cost of escape may seem unimaginable to a victim, even under the broadest legal protections. Often, advocates say, it's only a personal connection that pushes a woman to take that chance.
So people like Monica Bejar don't take their survival for granted. Having used the law to wrest her family from an abusive home, she has also reached out to other women in her community, speaking about her experience and informing them about the VAWA protections.
"The more you know, the more powerful that you get," she says. "If you know that you're protected, then you will be able to speak out."
Michelle Chen has written for the South China Morning Post, Clamor, INTHEFRAY.COM and her own zine, cain.