The Beaten Path

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

But an annulment would have made it easier to send Susana back to her homeland, and she one-upped her husband by filing for divorce and asking that the two-year conditional residency requirement be waived due to the abuse she allegedly had suffered at his hands.

The case of Blackwell v. Blackwell waged on until March 1995, when Timothy ended it with a bang--he pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and killed Susana and two of her friends in a courthouse hallway where they were waiting for the annulment hearing to begin. Timothy Blackwell was sentenced earlier this year to life in prison without possibility of parole.

In early 1994, after two years of hiding out, afraid to meet up with either her husband or the INS, Mary was found out--her husband discovered where she was living and immediately began threatening her with deportation, she says. Exhausted by the secrecy and the struggle to stay in this country, Mary gave up. "Do what you want to do," she told him.

He reported her. After being picked up by authorities, Mary spent days behind bars, then weeks in a hospital bed, where she was treated for diabetes and exhaustion. INS agents declared her deportable, but she still had a legal right to file an appeal based on the length of time she'd been in the U.S. The INS then released her so she could prepare to plead her case.

While Mary was being detained, her husband had demanded that their daughter be turned over to him. Upon her release, Mary felt that she had to return to live with him, at least for the short term, in order to get the girl back.

She planned to take her daughter and run at the first opportunity, but escape would not be easy. Her husband, Mary says, had established a new daily ritual shortly after her return to the fold: He'd walk their daughter the five blocks to school after locking Mary inside the house with a deadbolt, taking the key with him. He'd pick the girl up from class in the afternoon on his way home from work. Mary says she was allowed to leave their apartment only to fulfill her volunteer obligations at their daughter's school.

One evening, however, Mary told her husband, who had resumed his abusive ways, that the girl had to attend a rehearsal for a school play. "I said, 'I want to take her.' He said okay, but he told me to call him when I got to the school and that when the rehearsal was over, I should call him and he would pick us up.

"And we left with nothing. He watched us walk away until we got to the corner." The two then went to the school, where they phoned for a taxi to take them to safety at a program for women run by Catholic nuns. It was the first week of April 1994, in what would prove to be a very good year for Mary. She discovered that same year, she says, that not only were both her parents alive and well, but that they had been searching for her for years. Her husband had been hiding their letters to her since 1989.

Not long after that, Saltrese-Miller, then working for the Justice Information Center, told Mary she might be eligible to apply for residency under the Violence Against Women Act, which was working its way through Congress. "Sandra said it was a big chance," Mary recalls, "but I tell her, 'All my life I take big chances--let's go for it.'"

In March 1995, months before the bureaucratic groundwork was in place to file such petitions, Mary and her attorney filed the first self-petition for permanent residency in the state.

Not everyone was as delighted as Mary with the passage of the law. "There are so many ways to skirt the law that it's almost like winking at the government," says Tom Tancredo, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden. "It is treating the symptoms, not the real problem. The real problem," he adds, "is immigration."

Though Tancredo says he sympathizes with battered spouses, he says he has heard that "a lot of women have claimed that particular situation in order to get out of a marriage before two years are up."

However, Saltrese-Miller and Anderson say the claim that rampant fraud has characterized such cases is specious. "Most of the time, when these women come to me, I find it amazing that they're still alive after what they've been through," says Anderson. "Generally, the abuse gets to be so severe that they leave, or their children get abused and they leave and go to a safehouse. That's when they learn about the law. And that's when they come to see us."

Because she was paving the way for others--her application was held up while rules were being promulgated--the bureaucratic going has been slow for Mary. She hopes that her interview with the INS, during which her petition for residency will be approved or denied, will be scheduled by the end of the year.

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