Blaming the Victims: A new bill endangers immigrants in abusive relationships

Marisol Flores has proof: stacks of Polaroid photographs documenting bruises and welts, emergency room bills, police and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reports, reams of court testimony. All these tell in painful detail the history of her twelve-year marriage that has dramatically colored her life in the United States, retold by the Chicago Reporter. It’s a different story for Monica Bejar: as she told the American Prospect, her papers fell victim to her ex-husband’s drunken rages, in which he ripped up the very immigration forms he offered to file for her.

Flores and Bejar have joined the ranks of “names changed to protect their identity.” To these women, identity is a multiply dangerous thing–it can tip off a furious ex-husband to their location; it can make it easier for the INS to track them down and deliver them back to their home country of Mexico. They are two of the countless women that make up one of the most vulnerable strata of our society: undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse.

Man has been raising fist against woman since time immemorial, and members of every social class, race, and occupation are victims of domestic violence. However, undocumented women face special hurdles when faced with an abusive situation, especially when their husbands are legal citizens or permanent residents. Some, like Flores, are married to men who pay for the fees incurred by using a ”coyote” to get across the border in exchange for a wife. Many times, the husbands may be their only connection to the greater American world when the woman doesn’t speak English and feels that she has no rights–thus he has control over her legal, medical, and employment issues. The abuser may threaten to “out” her illegal status or mess up the status of her immigration proceedings. “[Women] don’t know their rights, so they believe what the abuser is telling them and they don’t call the police,” says Rosa Abarca, the Domestic Violence Program Coordinator of the Pilsen-based Mujeres Latinas en Acción. “Working with the criminal justice system is a big fear, and something that they’re not comfortable doing.” The argument that many abusers use–that the woman can’t leave because she “needs” him–is even more potent when a woman is here illegally and her husband is not, since, in some ways, he may very well be right.

A little-known law, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), set out to rectify this power imbalance and give battered immigrant women the power to stand up against their abusers. One of its provisions allowed battered women to apply for permanent resident status and remain in the country while their application was being processed. For women who have entered the country illegally but not specifically to flee abuse, this may change. Changes to VAWA have been proposed by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) that would require such women to return to their home country while waiting for the immigration decision.

A trip home to stay with Mom for a couple of months may not sound like a big deal, but it can have major consequences for an immigrant woman. “These women leave their home countries for a reason,” Neusa Gaytan, Program Director of Mujeres Latinas en Acción, reminds us. “[The effect of returning home] depends on the woman’s level of education and what the home country is–what the economic situation is like, how many opportunities there are to develop professionally…but remember, there are reasons they are here and not there. For everyone, but especially for women, stability is extremely important. They have to worry about their children.”

Not only does an immigrant woman have to worry about her own fate–the loss of a hard-earned job, apartment, or support system–but when children are in the mix, the situation gets even more complicated. If she gets deported, does she uproot her children for an unknown period of time when they were born and raised in the U.S., may not know Spanish (or Korean or Polish) very well, and the education system back home is far less than ideal? Does she leave them in the United States with their friends and school–but also with their abusive father? Or do you just give up and stay in the relationship with the abuser? If the latter route is chosen, “you are perpetuating the cycle of domestic abuse since children who witness domestic abuse often suffer psychological damage and become abusers themselves,” says Gaytan. If the woman chooses to leave the relationship, there is a high risk of abduction for the children. Without the added protection of permanent residency, this unsavory decision becomes even more difficult.

Many non-profits like Mujeres Latinas en Acción dedicate themselves to helping battered women get help and they have vastly improved lives through services like legal counsel, child care, and emergency hotlines. However, the proposed changes to VAWA will dramatically limit the resources at their disposal. “Right now, we recommend the self-petition [to get permanent resident status under VAWA] and do everything in our power to help them out,” says Gaytan. “If this changes, we will not recommend to put the woman at risk. We never decide for the victim what is best for her… but we would definitely caution her that there might be repercussions. In the future, this will not be something that we will be emphasizing.” Organizations like these should not have tools taken away from them, but should be given the support they need to support one of the most vulnerable classes of human beings.

If VAWA were to be changed to require deportation while applications process, it’s not a stretch to say that many women would be discouraged from applying for permanent residency and gaining the legal tools they need to rescue their lives–and those of their children–from abuse. This can have nefarious effects not only on the women themselves, but on the communities they live in. An inability for women to protect themselves from abusers “gives legitimacy to the abuser,” says Gaytan. “The women will continue to believe that the world is against them.” This breeds a climate of fear in neighborhoods with high numbers of immigrants. Mujeres Latinas en Acción report that they receive around eighty new clients to their Domestic Violence Program’s services each month, and those are only the ones brave enough to ask for help. Even then, “some women refuse to give us their last names, or use fake names,” according to Gaytan. As for the broader community, it would make immigrant women afraid to leave their houses in case their abuser may find them. According to Ms. Abarca, they wonder, “How much exposure should I have outdoors? Should I go to work, take my kids to school? What will be out there?” Instead of integrating into society, victims of abuse shrink back in fear. If the goal of immigration is to create new American citizens who contribute to society, this is not the way to go–all it produces are homebound women stricken by paranoia and children crippled by growing up in that environment.

Anti-immigration sentiment has taken a hold on the popular imagination in recent years. There are legitimate and understandable fears behind this: worries of overloading public services, of letting terrorists across the border, of floods of undocumented immigrants pushing down wages. As a result, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods like Little Village have gone through invasive, often damaging campaigns against undocumented immigrants–the new VAWA is just one in a series of many. But VAWA protects a special group of people that have historically been afforded leniency, even in the face of harsh anti-immigration campaigns. Regardless of your opinions on U.S. immigration policy, moving the frontline of battle against the weakest of the weak violates the basic rules of war. We would not try to defeat the terrorists by targeting their wives and children; nor should we try to solve the immigration problem by targeting those who need America’s help the most and lack the ability to protect themselves. To these women, deportation not only means losing a job but possibly losing their life or their children to abduction. This is not just blaming the victim in the highest degree, but it’s empowering the perpetrators of violent crime–it takes away tools from those who want to help and gives tools, legal and psychological, to those who terrorize. To the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services: take your battle elsewhere. At least start with those who can fight back.