Awareness Growing of Abused Immigrant Spouses

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I am alone in the world, in the town, in the country.

This is the first line of a poem a Florida resident named Juana wrote before she went into hiding with her three children.

Like many women now living in the United States, Juana migrated to the United States as a young woman and married a citizen hoping for love, needing a home and expecting permanent residency status here, a green card.

It didn’t work out that way. Her husband drank alcohol excessively and beat her. He never signed the documents necessary for her to receive a green card. Without it, she could not work outside the home, could not apply for welfare, food stamps or Medicaid and could not return to her parents’ home in Mexico without gambling that she might never be allowed back to see her children again.

One night, he showed her his knife, told her he was going to use it on her, kill her, as soon as he got back from his visit to the local tavern. She believed him.

Juana is not alone. However, since battered immigrant women don’t tend to bring their stories into the open, they have remained fairly invisible to lawmakers and even to many social workers.More and more frequently, officials and activists are coming across battered women in their communities and, from a desire to help them, are assessing their needs.

Experts estimate that 60 percent of all immigrant wives in America are abused by their husbands. The statistics remain about constant regardless of the woman’s home country.

This week, 300 people from around the country are meeting in Seattle to discuss the growing numbers of women in Juana’s situation and how best to meet their needs for security, support and social services. The group comprised of social workers, attorneys, immigration officers, and most important, immigrant women who have survived domestic abuse, has doubled in size every year since it began meeting five years ago.

The formerly battered immigrant women will offer conference participants their personal insights about needed improvements to services, such as the need for more translators in police departments.

"The women are at the table making their voices heard–not just out there somewhere while others talk on their behalf," said Leni Marin, co-chair of the National Network on Behalf of Immigrant Women.In Iowa and in El Paso, the network founded organizations of immigrant women who had left abusive relationships. The network trained these survivors how to reach out to others in the community who were afraid to leave their partners. Women who hadn’t dared to share their secrets with counselors began visiting shelters when they found out they could talk to people who had been in similar situations.

"Immigrant women are their own best advocates if given the training and resources to understand what it takes to be an advocate," said Marin.

Leslye Orloff, an attorney for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and one of the country’s leading experts on battered immigrant women, said the issues faced by battered immigrant women are drawing more attention now because of stricter immigration laws as well as changing immigration patterns (NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund is the publisher of Women’s Enews).

"Shelters in rural Alabama and Iowa are beginning to see battered immigrant women for the first time," Orloff said, adding that several members of Congress recently became aware for the first time that they had battered immigrants in their own districts.

The most urgent item on the meeting’s agenda is legislation pending in Congress that would lower some of the hurdles battered immigrant women face.

The Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act is a modification of the 1996 Violence Against Women Act that advocates have found does not adequately address the needs of immigrants.

The battered women act would make it possible for immigrants who are being abused by their spouses to file for the legal right to remain in the U.S. even if their spouses refuse to sponsor them. The law would also permit battered immigrant spouses to seek residency even if the marriage ends in divorce.

In addition, the act would prevent immigrants who are being abused in this country from being required–as they are now–to return to their home countries in order to apply for permanent resident status here. Knowing that the home country’s laws are more tolerant of spousal violence, they are fearful that their permanent resident or citizen spouse will follow them back to their home country and attack them there out of revenge.

"Having legal status is paramount for battered immigrant women," said the bill’s co-sponsor Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., "It is the threshold to eliminating the barriers that keep them in fear and in the shadows."


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