Subject: News: Battered immigrant women
Date: Tue Apr 20 1999 - 16:57:01 EDT
Afraid of Husbands, and the Law
Deportation Risk Grows for Abused Illegal Residents
By GINGER THOMPSON
The New York Times, Sunday, April 18, 1999
Shy and soft-spoken, the 26-year-old Dominican woman uses pictures rather
than words to tell about the nightmare that was her marriage.
One photograph shows a ransacked apartment, the bedroom dresser pushed onto
its side, lamps, mirrors and pots of tulips shattered on the floor. Another
shows the woman battered; her mouth is swollen, her eyes are black and she
has bruises on her legs.
The photographs, she said, were secretly taken by her sister and show what
happened when her husband became angry. In his fits of rage, she said, he
would beat her and throw her out of their home in Manhattan. Then he would
apologize and ask her to return -- always with a warning that made it
impossible for her to refuse.
"He told me that if I did not come back, he would call the police and have
me deported," said the woman, who entered America illegally five years ago
from the Dominican Republic. "He would say that because he is legal, he has
more rights in this country than I do, and that he could take my son away."
Advocates for immigrants say spousal abuse has long been one of the most
critical and widespread problems endured by women who do not have legal
residency in the United States but are married to someone who does. As the
Federal Government has toughened immigration laws in recent years, it has
become increasingly difficult for these women to gain permanent residency,
making threats like those of the Dominican woman's husband more potent.
One of the most disputed changes came last year, when Congress allowed the
expiration of a provision that permitted immigrants entitled to permanent
residency to stay in this country while awaiting green cards. A green card
certifies that an immigrant is a permanent resident.
The expiration has roused immigrant advocates, particularly in New York,
over the implications for battered women.
Advocates say the loss of 245i, as the expired provision of the Immigration
and Naturalization Act was known, has already deterred battered women from
seeking permanent residency because of concerns over what could happen when
they are sent back to their native countries while their green card
applications are processed.
Leslye Orloff, the national policy director for Ayuda, a group supporting
battered immigrants, said many of the women feared that if they left the
United States, they would be exposed to suits claiming custody of their
children, many of whom were born here. Many also worry, Ms. Orloff said,
that once they are outside this country, it will be easier for United
States consular officials to challenge claims of abuse and hardship, and
refuse to grant green cards -- an irreversible decision.
"They know that they are going to be forced to make an impossible choice to
either leave the country to get their green card, and risk extreme danger
for themselves and their children," Ms. Orloff said, "or to give up their
chance of ever getting a green card, putting themselves and their children
at risk for different kinds of dangers."
Since 245i expired, groups like Ms. Orloff's have organized meetings to
explore legal strategies that have so far allowed them to keep their
clients in the United States. And members of Congress are debating whether
to pass a bill introduced in January by Representative John Conyers Jr., a
Democrat from Michigan, that would in effect re-enact 245i for battered
women. Called the Violence Against Women Restoration Act of 1999, it would
allow battered immigrant women to stay in this country while they wait for
their green cards. The Immigration and Naturalization Service also supports
"These women are in these situations through no fault of their own and our
Government should be encouraging them to get out of abusive relationships,"
said Johanna Minguez, a lawyer at the Northern Manhattan Coalition for
Immigrant Rights. "But without 245i, we are forcing them to make a choice
between getting beat up, or getting removed from the country."
Before 245i expired, advocates said, roughly 400 undocumented women across
the country filed petitions for permanent residency each month. Unlike most
groups of undocumented immigrants -- as those lacking any legal documents
are commonly called -- domestic abuse victims are able to file petitions
without the support or knowledge of their spouses as long as they can show
that leaving the United States would cause extreme hardship for themselves
and their children and they can provide evidence of their abuse, like
medical records, police reports and photographs.
While 400 women is not a high number, advocates consider it significant
because immigrants are often uninformed about Federal laws or avoid filing
for any kind of protection or benefits from Federal agencies for fear of
Now, more than a year since 245i expired, fewer than 250 women a month are
filing petitions. The Immigration and Naturalization Service said there
were no reliable estimates of the total number of undocumented women living
in New York or nationally who are battered by their spouses.
Advocates say stories like the Dominican woman's, whose name is not being
used to protect her identity, are widespread among battered women in New York.
Tucked in her purse is a copy of the permanent order of protection a New
York court issued to prohibit her husband from approaching her. If she
returned to Santo Domingo, she said, she would be an open target should her
husband follow her there. "If I go home, those orders will not mean
anything," she said. "The police in the Dominican Republic will not come if
Federal law prohibits immigration court officials and immigration officials
from notifying battered women's husbands about their wives' petitions for
permanent residency. The New York Times could not contact the husbands of
the women interviewed for this article. The Times did examine court
documents to verify the accuracy of the women's claims and found that all
the women interviewed had obtained court orders of protection against their
One of them, a 34-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, said she
stayed in an abusive marriage for nine years because she was afraid of
losing custody of her two daughters, who are United States citizens. She
and her husband, a legal permanent resident of the United States, met in
the Dominican Republic. When they married, she said, he promised that he
would file residency petitions for her once they arrived in New York.
But he never did. Many battered immigrants said that their spouses used
their illegal residency status to oppress them.
"He did not want me to become legal because that was his way to control
me," said the 34-year-old woman, who left her husband a year ago and has
just moved from a women's shelter to a public housing complex in New York
City. "He never let me leave the house. He never let me take English
classes. He never helped me find a job."
"It was like being a prisoner," she added.
Officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service point to such cases
in their support for restoring 245i. Officials said that battered women
must show in their petitions that leaving the United States would cause
them extreme hardship. It would be inconsistent, officials said, for the
agency to accept hardship claims and still force battered women to leave
the country to get their green cards.
"On the one hand, we are saying it would be an extreme hardship for these
women to leave the country," said Efren Hernandez, an assistant legal
counsel at the immigration service, "but then on another, we are forcing
them to go. The I.N.S. has always supported some kind of measure to fix
Others feel that fixing the gap would mean creating a loophole. Daniel A.
Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration
Reform, a conservative group that has long supported efforts to restrict
immigration, said that if Congress allows battered women to stay in this
country while waiting for their green cards, other immigrant groups will
seek similar allowances.
Mr. Stein also said that battered undocumented women should be sent back to
their homelands, where they could live in more familiar environments and
get more support from friends and relatives.
"If a person enters this country illegally or overstays a visa, showing
flagrant disregard for the laws of this country," he said, "the fact that
they have suffered abuse is a tragedy, but it does not mean that they
should not be subject to the same laws as any other undocumented immigrant."
He added, "We should not allow the woman to become a beachhead for a long
chain of family migration to the United States, which is why a lot of them
came here in the first place."
But a 31-year-old woman from Mexico said she never thought of living in
America until she met her husband, who was a citizen. And now that she has
left him, after three years of abuse, she said that she wished she could
return home. But she is afraid for her life.
She was an office clerk in Mexico when she met her husband five years ago.
They met on a picturesque cobblestone street, she said, and walked and
talked for hours. After their wedding, her husband drove her across the
border illegally, the woman said. A year later they had a son.
Then, she said, her husband's moods became erratic and violent and he began
beating her. After one beating, the woman said, she packed her suitcases
and told her husband she was going back to Mexico. He beat her and tore off
her clothes. As she lay terrified on the bed, she said, he got a knife from
the kitchen and cut apart all the clothes she had packed in her suitcases.
The Mexican woman and her son, 3, are now living in hiding in a heavily
guarded women's shelter in New York. The woman said she would love to go
home. But she is terrified that her husband will follow her.
"He has already gone to Mexico to try to talk to my family, telling them
that he wants me to come home," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "It
would be easier for him to hurt me, and maybe my family, if I go back to
Mexico. I feel safer here."
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