Longform

The Beaten Path

Page 5 of 5

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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Karen Bowers