“I miss my babies so much, but I can’t go back. I know he will find me and kill me,” Gonzalez, 26, said recently, sobbing as she stared at a cellphone image of two little boys. Around her sat a dozen other Hispanic women who had gathered at La Clinica del Pueblo in the District. All are victims of domestic violence in their home countries or the United States, and most are here illegally.
In the national debate over immigration changes, little attention has been paid to a subset of immigrants who live in a double shadow: thousands of women who depend on abusive spouses for legal and economic protection in the United States, and thousands more who fled violent partners in their homelands and could be in danger if forced to return.
Now, as President Obama attempts to revive fading chances that Congress will pass a comprehensive overhaul in the coming months, advocates for abused immigrant women are making a separate appeal for action on their behalf. In theory, these groups say, many victims qualify for political asylum or special resident visas, but in practice many remain trapped and invisible, reluctant to complain or seek help for fear of making things worse.
The bipartisan immigration bills languishing in the Senate and House would put about 4 million undocumented women on a path to legal status. They also contain provisions to grant more rights and services to immigrants who have suffered violence abroad or in the United States. For example, they would extend the one-year deadline to apply for asylum, nearly double the number of visas for victims of violence, and protect undocumented women from deportation if they leave an abusive spouse.
“Congress may see there is time to wait, but we see incredible urgency to press forward,” said Jeanne Smoot, director of public policy for the Tahirih Justice Center in Arlington County, which helps victimized immigrants seek legal protection. “We see an immigration system that ties and traps women in situations of abuse and exploitation every day. Reform legislation will address that with a host of thoughtful and significant changes.”
At a congressional briefing in November, officials from Tahirih and other groups detailed cases of women, many of them from Africa, who fled war or ritual violence and applied unsuccessfully for political asylum. A Tanzanian who refused female circumcision was raped, beaten, starved and left naked in prison before escaping. She applied for asylum in the United States but was turned down because she did not meet the one-year filing deadline.
In some instances, foreign-born women who have survived terrible abuse have virtually no chance for legal relief, especially if they have kept the abuse a secret out of shame or fear. Only about 25,000 special visas are granted each year to victims of violence, and without solid evidence to support the claims, immigration judges struggle to sort fact and fiction.
“It takes them a long time to open up, even here,” said Dilcia Molina, who runs the support program for domestic violence victims at La Clinica del Pueblo. “It’s beautiful to have laws to help them, but the psychological process is slow and the system is difficult to navigate. It is hard for them to overcome the fear of being betrayed.”
Juanita, a 39-year-old from El Salvador who attends Molina’s program, said she was molested for years by her stepfather but no one believed her. Never sent to school, she married a violent man who she said knocked out her teeth and slammed her head into steel beams, but she never reported the assaults. She entered the United States illegally several years ago and was brought to La Clinica complaining of headaches.
“When the doctor saw me, she asked me why I had scars all over my body,” Juanita recounted recently at La Clinica, where the abuse survivors group was sharing a potluck Thanksgiving feast. “I had never told anyone what happened, not even at the hospital. I was too scared and too ashamed of what people would think. I couldn’t read or write. I lived like I was closed inside a box.”
Juanita, who did not want to use her last name, has received counseling, donations and other private help. But officials at La Clinica said she would have a difficult time securing asylum or obtaining a special visa — available since 2000 under the Violence Against Women Act — because she has no way to prove what happened.
When abuse occurs in the United States, foreign-born victims can pursue help from police and social services. But efforts to encourage them to seek official intervention come into conflict with punitive policies and proposals aimed at curbing illegal immigration and reducing crime.
Some jurisdictions empower police to turn over suspected illegal immigrants to federal officials, and a congressional proposal known as the SAFE Act would significantly expand state and local authority to enforce immigration laws. Supporters say that such a law would discourage illegal immigration and help catch criminals. Opponents, including some area police officials, say it would keep the abused and victims of other crimes from coming forward, endangering public safety.
Thomas Manger, the police chief in Montgomery County, opposes the SAFE Act. At the recent congressional briefing, he recounted a case in which a Latino man broke into his ex-girlfriend’s house, hit her with a metal rod and caused a head injury that required stitches, but she refused to call the police because she was undocumented. After a friend persuaded her to contact authorities, Manger said, the man was arrested and sent to prison, and the woman was able to obtain a special visa.
“The reluctance of folks to come forward because they are undocumented and fear deportation is a much greater public safety problem than having people here who may be undocumented but are not committing other crimes,” Manger said in an interview. “Criminals thrive in neighborhoods where people don’t trust the police. This is a daily struggle for us.”
No matter their legal status, immigrant women who experience domestic violence often face another obstacle to obtaining help. Like Gonzalez, many pray that their abusive partners will soften over time, and they want to believe the apologies that follow beatings. The situation rarely improves.
Zoila America, a 55-year-old Salvadoran, endured eight years of violence committed by her husband, a legal resident who often threatened to have her deported. After months of counseling at La Clinica, she left her spouse, obtained a high school equivalency and found work as a health promoter. But it was not just her husband’s legal status that kept her tethered, she said.
“I loved him,” America said in a telephone interview from California, where she moved recently to start over. “I suffered for so long, but I did nothing. One day, he beat me and kicked me and broke a mirror on my head, and I finally called 911. But even then it was a very hard step to take.”
She paused. “Love does make you blind.”