The Beaten Path

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

"My husband told me that my mother said my father had passed away," she says. "He said that my family did not want to know about me because I had a black child, and they had disowned me. He said he didn't tell me before because I was pregnant and he didn't want to upset me." Mary would believe that story for the next five years.

And the abuse escalated. One night when the baby was just two months old, Mary bundled up her infant and parked herself on a bus bench in front of an all-night grocery store. "They had a security guard," she says, "and he could not hit me in a public place."

On occasion, a friend or neighbor would phone police to report the assaults. Sometimes Mary was able to get away and call police herself. But "two hours later," she says, "he would be in the house. What good did it do me? Then I was more hurt than I had been in the beginning."

When her husband did end up in jail, she says, she paid for that, too. "He would say, 'When I get out of jail, I'm going to kill you. I'll have you deported!'"

Staffers at the Denver City Attorney's office offered Mary counseling, but she didn't take them up on it. She wasn't yet ready to leave her husband. "When you're in love and having kids and he says that he is sorry and he promises you that everything will be fine, you try to keep the family together," she explains.

But Mary reached her breaking point in 1991, when she was pregnant with the couple's second child. She got a restraining order against her husband and fled to a shelter for battered women. She was living at the shelter when she went into labor three months ahead of schedule. The infant lived just three hours; Mary believes that her husband's abuse--he allegedly pushed her down the stairs while she was pregnant--contributed to the baby's death.

"I was sad," Mary says. "I needed someone with me. My baby passed away, and I believed I had no family." So she went back to her husband. And the abuse continued.

Mary says she left a second time after her husband accidentally started a fire in their apartment. He'd been doing drugs and had fallen asleep with a cigarette still burning. That time, she says, she was determined to stay away. She sold her television and stereo to get the money for an attorney, hoping a lawyer could help her get her green card. It was only then, Mary says, that she discovered the truth. "[The attorney] said my husband never filed my papers," she recalls. "He said, 'You are illegal.'"

"So what can I do?" she asks rhetorically. "I couldn't go home. I didn't have friends. He didn't let me have friends."

Mary chose what she thought was her only option: She went into hiding, from the INS as well as from her husband. She supported herself and her daughter on her meager income for the next two years--right up until the day her husband caught up with her.

In getting out when she did, Mary had already beaten the odds.
"Some women leave after the first incident of abuse," says Linda Gordon, an attorney with Project Safeguard, an advocacy and emergency resource program for battered women. "But generally, it takes time and a number of incidents before they ask for help."

Many women, no matter where they were born, have trouble admitting they've been abused. They find the legal process degrading and worry about what others will think of them. But the problem is often magnified when dealing with people from other cultures, says Cheryl Martinez.

"Picking up a phone and calling police is a significant act for the population in general," she says. "And the fact that they're undocumented and there are cultural and linguistic barriers...they might not even recognize where to go for help or treatment. It's almost beyond comprehension."

And the frightening experiences of some women who have spoken up have given others further reason to stay quiet. The case of Susana Remerata Blackwell is perhaps the most infamous example.

Susana Remerata, a native of the Philippines, was 22 when her photograph appeared in an issue of Asian Encounters magazine. Theoretically a vehicle through which Filipinas could strike up pen-pal relationships with American men, the publication actually was a mail-order matchmaking club that hooked up marriage-minded men with like-minded women.

Taken with Susana's beauty, 44-year-old lab technician Timothy Blackwell began a year-long postal courtship of her. He flew to the Philippines in 1993, where the couple met and married. He returned to Washington state a few weeks later. The INS spent almost a year checking on Susana before allowing her to enter the United States to join her husband.

Susana Blackwell arrived in the United States on February 5, 1994. She left Timothy Blackwell less than two weeks later, claiming that he'd pulled her hair and tried to choke her. When he realized that Susana wasn't coming back, Timothy Blackwell filed for an annulment of the marriage and suggested to INS officials that Susana may have violated the law by fraudulently inducing him to marry her.

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