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Immigration Law Proposals Threaten Victims of Domestic Violence

May 8, 2006

When a victim of domestic violence also happens to be an immigrant woman without documents, the barriers she faces in trying to escape her tormentor are enormous. Two New Mexico women, founders of Enlace Comunitario, say punitive legislation that has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives would make such a woman, already dangerously at risk, far more vulnerable. “Typically, she must overcome a language barrier and poverty. She fears deportation. She doesn’t trust authorities. She comes from a background of cultural and religious beliefs that make her feel she must stay in a relationship,” says Claudia Medina. “And she is unable to leave her abuser because in most cases, he is the one with the legal documents to work in this country. The community came to us and said, would you do something about this problem.” Enlace Comunitario, which promotes the rights of Spanish-speaking immigrants in New Mexico, began by training volunteers and conducting a weekly support group. “We were in the midst of a volunteer training session,” says Medina, “when one of the women from the community was killed by her husband.” They knew then they had to confront the crisis broadly in addition to providing services for victims. “The roots of domestic violence are ingrained in those barriers that immigrants face,” explains Medina. “We need to address systemic discrimination and the fact that there is a very anti-immigrant sentiment in the nation that is beginning to affect us here in New Mexico.” Enlace Comunitario’s new project educates community members on civil rights issues. “People need to know what their rights are with police and with the border patrol. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of confusion between homeland security and issues of immigration, and so people are extremely frightened,” says Rachel Lazar, executive director of El Centro, the advocacy spin-off of Enlace Comunitario. “There is almost a military presence, and our families become terrified just taking their children to school, going grocery shopping, or driving to work.” Among the federal legislative proposals, Medina and Lazar say the approach of Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy is comprehensive and provides a path to citizenship for the 11 to 12 thousand undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. In contrast, the House bill, HR 2437, “looks at immigrants as criminals,” says Medina. And that has drastic implications for many women trapped in violent marriages. The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994 and recently reauthorized, includes specific protections for immigrants based on studies that showed that domestic battery problems can be exacerbated in marriages where a non-citizen’s legal status depends on an abuser. A survey had shown that 40 percent of immigrant victims of such abuse reported that the battery either began or increased following their arrival in the U.S. Further research—sponsored by the Immigrant Women Project (IWP) of Legal Momentum (formerly the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund)—reported that immigration related abuse can take many forms, from a husband threatening to turn in an immigrant wife to Homeland Security to hiding her notices to appear before an immigration judge to defend herself from deportation. According to the report, abusers “play upon their victims fears” to retain control. In a particularly cruel Catch 22, the protections for immigrant women afforded by the Violence Against Women Act are unavailable unless a person is of “good moral character,” a designation precluded by the criminal label mandated in the House immigration bill. “What people don’t know is if you over stay your visa or are otherwise undocumented, currently that is a civil violation,” explains Lazar. “The House bill would turn 12 million people into felons.” Another provision of the bill would have state and local police enforce federal immigration laws. “So our local police would pretty much be doing the job of border patrol,” says Lazar. “If I want to call the police to protect me or my children, but I know that will lead to my deportation, I’m not going to do so. It is a disincentive not only for the victims but for anyone who witnesses a crime. That is a huge public safety issue.” Despite the problems faced by those who reach the U.S., increasing numbers of women cross the border. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented families in the U.S. contain 3.9 million women and 4.9 million men. And contrary to the stereotype of undocumented workers, fewer than half of male migrants and only one of five females are single and unattached. AP reporter Julie Watson wrote recently that whereas a decade ago, illegal immigrants were typically men, now more and more women cross the border—at tremendous risk. Rape is so prevalent that women often take birth control before they set out. Watson quoted Teresa Rodriquez, regional director of the UN Development Fund for Women, that some considered rape “the price you pay for crossing the border.”