Several new laws have allowed abused foreign-born women, including those who entered the United States illegally and those whose immigration status depends on their spouse, to obtain legal residency on their own. But many women — especially those who entered illegally — do not know that they are entitled to such relief.
Teresa Gomez, a Salvadoran woman in her 20s, and Margaret Ashong, a grandmother from Ghana, endured regular beatings, threats and insults by the fathers of their children.
Like many battered immigrant women, they mostly suffered in silence, fearful that if they went to the police they could lose their right to remain in the United States and their source of economic support.
It was not until both women ended up in emergency rooms — Gomez with her face slashed and bloodied from a knife attack, Ashong bruised and traumatized from another beating — that they discovered a network of support that helped them obtain legal immigration status as well as psychological and financial help.
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“He treated me like a slave, and there was no one I could tell,” said Ashong, 62, who lives in Arlington County, Va. “He told the police I was not his wife and that they should send me back to my country. But (the police) said to me, ‘Don’t weep, madam, this is not an immigration matter. It is a case of domestic violence. We will get help for you.’ “
In the past decade, several new laws have allowed abused foreign-born women, including those who entered the United States illegally and those whose immigration status depends on their spouse, to obtain legal residency on their own.
Lawyers at two nonprofit legal agencies, Ayuda in Takoma Park, Md., and the Tahirih Justice Center in Arlington County, said they have helped hundreds of foreign-born women win the right to remain in the United States after they were able to prove to immigration authorities that they had been abused or assaulted by a boyfriend, husband, employer or acquaintance.
But, the lawyers said, a far larger number of women — especially those who entered illegally — never find out that they are entitled to such relief. Instead, they remain isolated and trapped in a terrible dilemma: afraid of men who subject them to harm, yet equally afraid of the consequences of turning them in.
“In many cases, the threat of deportation is part of the abuse,” said Paula Fitzgerald, a lawyer at Ayuda, which means “help” in Spanish.
When immigrant women from poor countries come to the United States to join husbands who are legal residents or citizens, she said, they often do not speak English or understand American laws. “The sponsor holds their legal status over their head and uses it to control them,” she said.
For victims who do come forward, there are two forms of relief that allow them to obtain legal status on their own. One is the Violence Against Women Act, enacted in 1994 and widely used in the past several years, which permits battered women to apply for work permits and later for legal residency.
The other is the “U visa,” in use since 2007, which allows victims of sexual assault and other crimes to win legal residency if they cooperate with police and the judicial system to help prosecute the offender.
An extra advantage of the visa is it entitles women to sponsor their children for immigration to the United States.
That’s a strong inducement for them to cooperate with law-enforcement authorities, especially for the Hispanic community, where thousands of women from Mexico and Central America enter the U.S. illegally to work, leaving their children behind for years in the care of relatives.
Yadira Gonzalez, 30, a dishwasher from Nicaragua, entered illegally in 2007 and left two young children with her parents.
In Northern Virginia, she became involved with a man, and they had a baby. The man grew increasingly violent, and she obtained a court protection order. Eventually, with her testimony, he was prosecuted and deported.
As a reward for her cooperation, Gonzalez won the right not only to remain here, but also to send for her children back home.
“The U visa was created strictly to benefit law enforcement. They were tired of undocumented people not cooperating against crime, of victims and witnesses being deported,” said Layli Miller-Muro, director of the Tahirih Justice Center.
Even if the law may seem to generously reward illegal immigrants, she added, “it can work the other way. I have seen horrible cases of abuse, but the police didn’t want to pursue the case, so the woman didn’t get the visa.”
Sometimes, women who enter illegally are fleeing domestic abuse in their home countries. In such cases, there is another potential source of legal relief in the American asylum system, which was established to provide a haven for foreigners who can show they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution or harm if forced to return home.
Although asylum is most often granted to individuals who have suffered for political, religious or social reasons, it also has been awarded to a handful of women who faced sexual or domestic abuse.
The groundbreaking case was that of Fauziya Kasinga, a woman from Togo who was subjected to genital mutilation as part of a tribal ritual. She was granted asylum in 1996.
Since then, most immigration judges have found that being beaten in their home country is insufficient grounds for asylum, but activists keep pushing to change this thinking.
“There has been this fear that if judges started granting asylum because of domestic violence, it would open up the floodgates,” said Morgan Wiebel, an attorney for a woman in Frederick, Md., who fled to the U.S. from her abusive husband, a police officer in Honduras. She applied for asylum several years ago, but her case is still on appeal.
Even when battered immigrant women win full legal protection, painful memories can persist. Each of 10 women interviewed for this article wept repeatedly as she described the humiliation and helplessness she felt, even years later.
Ashong, an effusive woman who works as a live-in aide for an elderly invalid, burst into tears and clutched a tissue to her face.
“What did I ever do wrong to him, that he should beat me like that?” she asked over and over. “I am happy now that I got my life back, but the pain is still there.”