The Beaten Path

A new law gives immigrant women a chance to get out of abusive relationships--and stay in the United States.

It took years for Mary, a native of Peru, to escape the brutality and fear that her life in Denver had become. She finally worked up the nerve two years ago, when she took her five-year-old daughter and slipped away from the house where her American husband had virtually imprisoned her.

Mary had tried to get away several times before, only to be forced by circumstances to return to her abusive spouse. Her last attempt had ended in disaster, when her husband ratted her out to immigration authorities. That time, she was wrested from her daughter and thrown behind bars.

But Mary's dash for freedom in 1994 had a happier ending--thanks to a new federal law that has leveled the playing field for her and other foreigners who marry Americans. Under the old guidelines, Mary's husband held a great deal of control over her ability to stay in this country. Today there's a way out for those who have been shackled to abusive spouses by immigration laws. However, many of those people--and even some of the social service agencies set up to help them--remain unaware of the new rules.

The problems for women like Mary stemmed from the government's well-intentioned efforts to prevent another form of abuse--the arrangement of fraudulent marriages that were allowing immigrants to become legal residents. In 1986 Congress passed a law requiring that, with a handful of exceptions, aliens getting hitched to U.S. citizens remain married for at least two years to be eligible for a green card. Even if the marriage survived that long, aliens could only become lawful, permanent residents if their spouses agreed to sponsor them. Should an immigrant's spouse opt not to file a petition on the immigrant's behalf, he or she could be declared deportable and forced to leave the country--even if the two were still legally married. And provided the spouse did sponsor a request for residency after the waiting period was up, the investigation that followed could drag on for years--during which time the spouse could revoke the application.

The question of domestic violence wasn't addressed in the 1986 legislation. But the law inadvertently gave battering spouses tremendous leverage. After all, a person with no legal standing in this country is much easier for an abusive spouse to control. As a result, says Boulder immigration attorney Sandra Saltrese-Miller, the petitioning process "became a bargaining chip. The victims were totally at their mercy."

"If you look at domestic violence, everything is about power and control," says Elizabeth Anderson, an attorney with Denver's nonprofit Justice Information Center. "The abusive spouse will tell their victim, 'If you call the police, I'll call the INS; they'll deport you, and I'll keep the kids.' Then add in the fact that many of these women aren't fluent in English and don't have work permits. Where are they going to go? It gives an abuser tremendous power."

"You do whatever they say because you think they will take your child," agrees Mary, who asked that her last name not be used. She stayed with her husband even after he broke her nose and twisted her ankle. She stayed even though she had to hide her bruised face from her co-workers at a Denver-area convenience store and sometimes spent nights pacing the streets, afraid to go home.

Congress first attempted to address the problem of domestic abuse against immigrants in 1990, when it passed a law allowing alleged victims to apply for a waiver of their "conditional residency" without their abuser's knowledge. But there were problems with that law, most notably that it applied only to immigrants whose spouses had applied for the conditional residency in the first place. If the spouse had never bothered to file the preliminary paperwork, the victim remained in immigration limbo and, if caught, could be deported.

The balance of power didn't really change for women like Mary until September 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act. That legislation includes a special provision that allows abused immigrant spouses or their children to petition personally for a change in their immigration status. It can still be an uphill battle: Petitioners must prove they entered into the marriage in good faith, that they were subjected to extreme cruelty, even that they are of "good moral character." Some women are overwhelmed when they discover the amount of documentation required to make their case; others don't have the money (anywhere from $350 to $1,000) it takes to file a petition. But those are hurdles that often pale in comparison to the former scenario: having to rely on the good graces of an abusive mate to become a legal resident.

At the time of the bill's signing, there was no way of knowing how many people might apply for special status under the law. At least one immigration advocacy group predicted "an initial surge" of several thousand cases, and critics warned that the law would open the floodgates to fraudulent claims of abuse.

In fact, the ink on the bill was barely dry in March 1995, when Mary, aided by Saltrese-Miller, became the first person in Colorado to file for such an immigration waiver. Since then, hundreds of people across the country--62 in the nineteen-state INS region that includes Colorado--have applied. At least one of the Colorado petitioners is a man who alleges he was beaten by his wife.

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