After escaping an abusive relationship, Anna, an undocumented middle-aged Latina woman earned her livelihood carting tamales up and down Mitchell Street in rain, shine or snow. She made the tamales on her stove at home to support herself and her granddaughter.
Anna (not her real name) is one of the lucky ones. Thanks to the UMOS Latina Resource Center and the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), she no longer lives with her abuser and she now has a U-VISA, enabling her to work at a factory. She still sells tamales on the side.
“If they can’t work, many abused women feel they can’t leave,” said Mariana Rodriguez, manager of UMOS Latina Resource Center, 802 W. Historic Mitchell St.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), originally passed in 1994, helps undocumented victims gain independence from their abusers. The law has been renewed twice, in 2000 and 2005, and is up for reauthorization this year.
Domestic violence among Latina women increased 6 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Data for 2011 is not yet available.
Unemployment, lack of independence and lack of self-sufficiency are the largest factors preventing Latina women, particularly undocumented ones, from leaving their abusers, according to Rodriquez.
The Latino community’s cultural emphasis on family also makes it difficult for women to leave, said Damaris Becker, a domestic violence and immigration advocate at UMOS.
“I’ve had victims tell me ‘My mom says I have to go back,’ ‘My mom says I need to stand by my husband,’ ” Becker said. “Add that to someone who cannot work, who cannot get any services, no assistance from the government, and can potentially be deported, that abuser has control on that victim, and the victim will most likely go back to the abuser.”
Undocumented immigrants often are afraid to get police involved when they are abused because they fear deportation for themselves or their abuser, leaving them to fend for themselves. However, a special provision of VAWA helps domestic violence victims who are undocumented immigrants seek help if they are married to a U.S citizen or living with an abuser.
Under VAWA, abuse victims, including men, women and children, can file for a special immigrant visa petition that, if approved, allows for both deferred status and employment eligibility. Deferred status means deportation proceedings are halted for the time being.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the VAWA reauthorization on Feb. 2, the first major step in renewing the legislation. The bill now moves to the full Senate, and will be taken up in the House of Representatives later this year. It remains to be seen whether it will be renewed.
Because of the isolation, marginalization and waning resources immigrant communities face, the law’s renewal is important to protect immigrant victims, said Tony Gibart, policy coordinator for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“I think more and more advocates and elected officials realized that to address domestic violence we needed to provide a path for immigrant victims, (one) without fear of being revictimized by the immigration system,” Gibart added.
But getting protection through VAWA is not easy.
Becker said the application is 150 pages with the required documents. These include restraining orders, police reports, records of police phone calls, physical or mental health history, hospital records and documents proving citizenship. Filling out the application can take from a few hours to a few months.
The victim also needs to write a personal statement including when she was born, when she met her abuser and when the abuse started –– an emotionally and mentally fatiguing task.
“That affidavit portion is one of the worst parts for me to do with the clients,” Becker said. “Just to write a personal declaration takes a lot out of us (as advocates), because we start reliving exactly what they live. (It) takes a huge toll on our victims and the children as well.”
After the paperwork has been filed, it takes 7-8 months for processing and approval. During that period, the victim is unable to work, but if she has children she’s eligible for government benefits including a monthly check from the state. If approved for the VAWA she is allowed to work.
Because of the time it takes for processing the application, Becker said it’s expected that the victim no longer lives with her abuser. She said the center does not take on cases if the victim is still living with the abuser, as it’s too great a risk for the victim and the center itself. Resource center staff members only help the center’s clients file VAWA paperwork, which means they already have background on the victim’s situation.
“This is not something we do at the beginning of the client coming in,” Becker said. “Whatever the case is we want to make sure that the client is safe, and that all of the basic needs are met at that moment.”
VAWA can only help an undocumented victim if she reports the violence, assists with investigation efforts and attends all court hearings on the case. After this, the district attorney certifies that the victim has complied. Without the certification, the client will not be approved for relief under VAWA.
Becker said clients are only referred for the VAWA when they have a good case. To date, the center has never had someone denied.
“I know that if someone comes back with a denial we can fight it, but up to what point we’re not sure,” Becker said. Because the resource center only has Becker and a part-time attorney working on these cases, the center cannot fight deportation.
While VAWA helps women gain employment and a life free from abuse, the act also helps undocumented victims change their immigration status.
Once a victim has been approved for protection under VAWA, she can apply for a U-VISA, which takes nearly eight months. The U-VISA is designed to provide lawful status to noncitizen crime victims who are willing to assist authorities in investigating crimes.
Becker said if the victim’s spouse has already submitted U-VISA paperwork (but has not gone any further in the process) she must start the paperwork again on her own. With the U-VISA, the victim becomes eligible for employment authorization and a Social Security card. She can live in the United States for four years, but she cannot travel abroad. In the third year she can apply for residency status, which takes a year to authorize.
In the past two years, Becker said the center has helped nearly 65 women get their U-VISA.
The UMOS Latina Resource Center does everything it can to help women such as Anna move on with their lives.
For example, when the stove Anna uses to make tamales broke, Rodriguez said, the center stepped in with funds to fix it and get her back to work.
“We have to think about ‘how do we continue to help our women grow, and support them in ways that their healing, their safety, their end of violence is going to be long term,’ ” Rodriguez said. “We need to be able to listen (to) what she is saying she needs, and think about what we can do to make that happen for her.”