The Beaten Path

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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.

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Karen Bowers