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Law aids immigrants who are victims of abuse

Hernán Rozemberg
San Antonio Express-News Immigration Writer

SAN JUAN - Elvira Arredondo is trying to make up for 14 years without smiling.

The owner of a taquería in this small town in the Rio Grande Valley, Arredondo today is the picture of an independent woman: Getting the restaurant off the ground, expanding her fledgling catering service, helping lead local voter registration drives and ensuring a good education for her children.

She even beamed about filing her own taxes.

The radical change came about in the past couple of years after she broke away from more than a decade of virtual home imprisonment at the hands of an abusive husband.

Thousands of undocumented immigrant women across the country, like Arredondo once was, are victims of domestic violence. Escape becomes all but impossible, as the abusers use their status as U.S. residents or citizens to hold their wives hostage, threatening to call immigration officers to have them deported if they act up.

Yet some have found a way out. A little-known section of the Violence Against Women Act allows abused undocumented immigrant women - and children and men - to file secretly for legal residency on their own.

They also could apply to not get deported, if they already had been ordered out of the country.

Applicants must be formally married when they submit the paperwork, which typically includes a statement detailing the type and length of abuse.

Most applications are approved, unless government reviewers don't see enough proof of abuse or if applicants have a criminal record.

Immigration investigators do look into the claims before approval is given. The victims are asked to file birth and marriage certificates and get affidavits from others who are aware of the abuse. The women also are asked to submit photos of the injuries and doctors' reports, if they are available.

Though it may easily take several years before approved applicants receive their "green cards," they usually get a voucher for public benefits in a couple of months - so at least they can leave the abusive home - followed by a work permit.

Officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency managing the program, said a national publicity campaign was launched after the law was passed.

And though the quantity of applicants is minimal in terms of the general population, one administrator said word gradually has spread and more undocumented battered women are recognizing it as a viable option.

"This program is very unique because the government works closely with community groups," the administrator said. "We recognize the unique circumstances of these battered women and children."

Some immigrant advocates, however, said that even after a decade in the books, most people have never heard of the law.

Juan Rios, who travels rural South Texas looking to assist victims, said many police and immigration officers - even some shelter workers - are ignorant of the provision.

Even those who have heard of it don't know that abuse does not have to mean large, visible bruises, said Rios, who works for the Texas Civil Rights Project. Though harder to prove, "extreme cruelty" cases involve verbal or mental maltreatment.

In the end, lack of knowledge about the program hurts victims the worst, said Rios, noting dozens of undocumented battered women would sign up, only if they knew it existed.

Arredondo, the taquería owner in San Juan, a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, wishes she could have found out about it sooner.

She left her home in Tampico, Mexico, as a teenager in search of a better-paying job. She obtained a border-crossing card, typically used for short shopping trips, but then stayed, cleaning homes in the Rio Grande Valley.

She fell in love with a man who turned aggressive after they were married, she said. She followed her husband, a U.S.-born migrant farm worker, traveling between Texas, Colorado and Idaho.

He constantly abused her verbally and physically, she said, slapping her to the floor even when she was pregnant with their first child. As their two children grew, he also hit them.

He threatened to kill her many times - one night he came close, jamming a kitchen knife against her throat.

At first, she couldn't leave him because she still loved him. Then she couldn't leave him because she feared she'd be deported to Mexico.

"He said all the time all he needed was a quarter - to call la migra," Arredondo, 40, recalled.

One night in late 2001 she finally took off, children in tow.

A local shelter worker referred her to the Texas Civil Rights Project, which took her case and, through the federal law's provision, successfully gained legality. She's waiting for her green card, but her work permit allowed her to start a registered restaurant and catering business.

After more than two years out of a life of abuse, she has even been tapped by advocates to speak to other women considering applying for the program but still fearful of the consequences.

"This opportunity has been like an angel came down from the sky just for me," she said. "I know it's a scary step, but more women have to see this as a good way out."

For some, it could be their only means of survival.

As an educated woman, with a degree in architecture in Monterrey, Mexico, who had already experienced one failed marriage, Fabiola Nuñez thought she would know better than end up in an abusive relationship.

Yet the Brownsville resident spent three straight years terrified about the man she had happily married a year earlier. He would say he was only joking when he began to push her around or pull her hair, she said.

Then one day the pushing and shoving turned into punches to the face. One night he beat her incessantly and locked her inside a room. Had he not passed out from being drunk, he would have killed her, she said.

Screaming for help, she dashed to a neighbor's house and called police. She was taken to a local shelter and then referred to Proyecto Libertad in Harlingen, a nonprofit advocacy group that handles cases for undocumented women.

Today, three years into her new life as a permanent resident and after a two-year stint as a domestic violence counselor, she's back in school, taking architecture classes. She has three children in Brownsville schools.

"If this law didn't exist, I might not exist myself," she said.

Despite its name, the program is not limited to just women. Abused children, like David in Eagle Pass, also can apply.

David, who did not want to give his last name, became a victim of his stepfather, who tormented the youngster and his mother for seven years. David's mother married the man when the boy was 9.

He often stayed as late as he could at a friend's house to avoid watching the stepfather - a U.S. resident - overpower his mother, he said.

Many times over the years, she would grab David in the middle of the night to run away for days, sometimes weeks, only eventually to return to the abuser's house.

Though he never found out details of how it occurred, when he returned home one night, David learned his mother was gone - she had been deported to Piedras Negras, Mexico, their hometown.

He found refuge in his aunt's house, but he lived in daily fear that he, too, would be rounded up and sent back. His aunt signed him up for counseling sessions.

Advocate Juan Rios heard about David's story and helped him process the paperwork and paid the $110 application fee. The government approved the petition this month.

When his work permit arrives in the mail, David said, he'll truly feel free. It has been nearly five years since he escaped abuse, but he still fears being in public or leaving town, thinking authorities could pick him up at any time.

Once armed with legal documents, David, now 21, plans to apply for college and might also sign up for military service.

No matter the choice, he just wants to be able to finally say he's got a future.

"I thought I was going to stay down for the rest of my life," he said. "I'm so excited now - I'm going to do so many things. This has been so unexpected."

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