Undocumented domestic abuse victims face hurdles

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By Rebekah Zemansky, Cronkite News Service

PHOENIX – When her husband started hitting her, Juana knew it was wrong. But she stayed, fearing that since he was a U.S. citizen and she was undocumented he could make good on threats to have her deported so that she’d never see their daughter again.

“He would tell me he is American, born here, and I’m Mexican and I don’t have papers,” Juana said. “That’s what he told me, that he was able to call immigration to deport me to Mexico, and because of fear of him taking my daughter away I would stay with him.”

The abuse continued even after Juana got pregnant a second time, she said. Seven months in, a beating was so bad Juana that had to be hospitalized. At nine months, he gave her a black eye.

“I would feel bad because he didn’t care that I was pregnant,” Juana said in Spanish. “He would change for a few days and be calm and everything, but then he would begin again and it would hurt me a lot.”

Domestic violence affects women of every country, culture and income level, and victims are often reluctant to seek help for a variety of reasons.

When a woman is in the U.S. illegally, however, she will be even more reluctant to come forward, law enforcement officials and victims’ advocates say. Undocumented immigrants as a group fear dealing with police, and some abusers use that fear as a lever, threatening to turn in their victims and separate them from children through deportation.

“When someone is not documented, of course there comes the immigration piece, the legality of it,” said Silvia Meyer, a counselor at Phoenix’s Family Advocacy Center. “The abuser will make the victim think or believe that she cannot do anything.”

There is no way to measure how many undocumented women are in the United States, let alone how many of them experience domestic violence. They can’t be recognized or counted until they come forward, and many stay silent.

But interviews with Arizona law enforcement officials, advocates, attorneys and victims revealed case after case where threats made undocumented victims stay with their abusers as violence escalated.

Besides Juana, Cronkite News conducted extensive interviews with three other domestic violence victims at a west Phoenix shelter run by Chicanos por la Causa: Karla, a permanent resident who reached out to her husband’s relatives only to have them take his side; Jacqueline, who left shortly after the birth of her third child; and Brenda, who left to protect her young son.

To protect the women’s identities, only their first names are used.

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