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 in the Washington area, 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 — Teresa with her face slashed and bloodied from a knife attack, Margaret bruised and traumatized from another beating — that they discovered a network of support that eventually helped them obtain legal immigration status as well as psychological and financial help.
“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.
“What happened to me was very ugly, but it had a happy ending,” Cortez said. “I was scared I was going to be deported, but I had to do something. I was so sick and upset that I couldn’t sleep or eat. I helped the police uncover what was inside the tamale,” she said, using a Spanish metaphor. “Maybe that saved some other victims, too.”
An extra advantage of a U visa is that 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 migrate illegally to the United States to work, leaving their children behind for years in the care of relatives.
Yadira Gonzalez, 30, a dishwasher from Nicaragua, entered the United States 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 kids 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 the United States 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 has also 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 women’s rights 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 who fled to the states 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 long after the abuse. Each of 10 women interviewed for this article wept repeatedly as they described the humiliation and helplessness they 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.”
Gomez, a petite woman of 24, uses a different last name in public but asked that it not be published. She said her entire life changed on April 3, 2007, when her estranged boyfriend dragged her into the kitchen and began to punch and stab her in a frenzied rage. Two days later, she awoke in a hospital room.
“I got up and went to the bathroom. When I saw my face in the mirror, it was the face of a monster. It wasn’t me at all,” she recounted, sobbing. Her former boyfriend was arrested and deported. He later died overseas.
But Gomez, who won full legal residency, said she still has nightmares that he will find her. “I am even afraid to close my eyes in the shower,” she said.