The Beaten Path

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

A number of women who applied almost a year after Mary submitted her paperwork are slated to meet with the INS as early as January. "Now there are a hundred cases like mine," Mary says proudly, "and I pray that they all get approved."

Despite Mary's optimism, immigration attorneys say that the Violence Against Women Act still fails to address the problems of many battered immigrants. For example, says Saltrese-Miller, women still must be married to their abuser at the time their self-petition is accepted by the INS. Some spouses have retaliated by filing for divorce before the victim can accumulate the documentation necessary to file for a change in immigration status.

And that documentation can be very difficult to obtain, particularly when it comes to proving to an INS examination officer that abuse occurred. "Individuals might never have reported the abuse to the police or sought medical attention," says Martinez. "Unfortunately, some victims shy away from filing a self-petition due to the perceived level of evidence that's required."

What some victims find even more daunting is the fee required to file a self-petition. "Many of these applicants find themselves in a situation where they have no money, no status and no income except that which comes from the battering spouse," Martinez says. "There are provisions to waive the fees, but then you have to explain that the waiver is discretionary on the part of the INS. These kinds of things pile up in their minds until they believe the possibility of success is improbable."

But Mary is doing her part to convince other immigrants that it is possible to succeed. "When I got out of that [abusive] situation," she says, "I promised myself I would help everyone. I say, 'If they need help, here am I.'" Mary now volunteers her time at the Justice Information Center and is involved with a Glendale support group for battered women. Both organizations have honored her with awards for her work.

Everywhere she goes, Mary spreads the gospel of the Violence Against Women Act. "The first step, I tell them, is walk out and report [the abuse] to police," she says. "The second step is to get a restraining order. The third step is to get custody of the kids. And from there, self-petition. I say to them, 'You can do it. I done it, and I go with you. Don't worry.'

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