“He treated me like a slave, and there was no one I could tell,” said Ashong, 62, who lives in Arlington County. “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 area nonprofit legal agencies, Ayuda in Takoma Park and the Tahirih Justice Center in Arlington County, said that in the past several years, 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 abused immigrant 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 emotional and physical 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.
Laura Cortez, 30, an illegal immigrant from Central America who lives in Alexandria, told police that she was molested by a man from her church who convinced her that she was possessed by demons and that he had to exorcise them. Law enforcement officials, eager to prosecute the man for other suspected offenses, supported her application for a U visa after she agreed to help them. She now has a work permit and within four years can become a permanent resident.