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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.

Getting word of the new law out to Denver's immigrant population hasn't been easy. Though attorneys and safehouses have attempted to spread the news, Saltrese-Miller says many battered spouses have no idea that relief is available. Even staffers at some community support groups remain in the dark.

"The women I'm helping now are at the bottom of the barrel," Anderson says. "They have nothing. But those are the lucky ones. They have friends or family back home who've gotten them the money to file. I've probably talked with a dozen women who've had a good case for self-petition, but they didn't have the money."

Mary believes she's lucky to even be alive. And now, at age 34 and two years after her desperate flight from the Denver home she shared with her husband, Mary is just weeks away from a hearing that might allow her to become a legal U.S. resident. If the INS approves her petition, she says, "that will be the second day of freedom in my life."

Her first taste of freedom, she says, came the day she left her husband for good.

Immigration law has always been a morass of red tape. But over the past decade, the rules and regulations have changed so much and so quickly that even the experts claim to be at a loss to understand all of the implications and loopholes.

"Under the best of circumstances," says Anderson, "illegal immigrants believe a lot of myths about the INS. If they're told that the INS will come right over to their door when called and that they'll be put on a bus and deported immediately, they'll believe that. Take that scenario and put in a woman who's already being battered, who's frightened for herself and her children, and you have victims who are extremely vulnerable."

And for immigrants, the truth about the power of the INS can be as frightening as the myths. Every immigration attorney, it seems, has a story to tell about an indigent, foreign-born woman whose husband actually made good on his threats to withdraw sponsorship, had his wife deported and kept the children with him in the United States.

As a result, many women have chosen to stay with their husbands, "holding on and trying to remain in their spouse's good graces just long enough to get through that final INS interview and get their green card," says Cheryl Martinez, an attorney with Denver's Catholic Immigration and Refugee Services. "It was either stay with their spouse and hope they survive the abuse, or return to their home country. And for some of them, no matter how precarious and violent their life was here, the reality of going back and living in a Third World country was even worse."

Mary was just 21 when she arrived in the United States from Peru in 1983. She'd come to visit her brother, who was living in Denver with his wife and children. Mary says she had every intention of returning to Lima before her six-month visa expired. She had a boyfriend back home, she says, and she'd even enrolled in a police academy there, hoping to pursue a career in law enforcement.

That all changed after she met her future husband, an African-American man originally from Wichita. They met at church, where his father was the preacher. "I stay here for him because he said, 'Please don't go, I love you,'" Mary recalls in heavily accented English. They married less than six months later, well before the 1986 law established the conditional residency requirement. But Mary still needed formal sponsorship from her spouse to be considered for reclassification as a permanent resident.

"He told me he would file my [immigration] papers," says Mary. "Then he told me he did file them. He said, 'Don't worry--sometimes this takes a long time.'"

The marriage was good, says Mary, until 1989, when she became pregnant with the couple's first child. After that, she says, her husband began drinking heavily, experimenting with drugs and bouncing from job to job.

He'd already isolated her from her friends, Mary says. When acquaintances would call, she says, he would tell them she was away for the weekend, when in truth she was at home napping. After she got pregnant, she says, his attempts to cut her off from her past life intensified. Her brother had died, and her social life had dwindled to the point where she went out only to go to church or to visit in-laws.

Her husband, she says, also became physically abusive. While she was still pregnant, she says, he punched her in her ear and she fell, twisting her ankle. She was in so much pain that she begged him to get her medical attention. "I said, 'I swear I won't say nothing--please take me to the hospital,'" she says. "He did take me, but he did not leave me alone with the doctor, and I had to tell them I fell."

After the birth of their daughter, Mary says, she eventually became frantic about her inability to reach her parents. When she tried to call them in Lima, she discovered that their phone had been disconnected. Her letters to them were returned unopened. When she relayed her fears to her husband, Mary says, he told her that her mother had phoned their home with bad news while Mary was in the last stages of her pregnancy.

"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.

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.

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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