Irena Lieberman

(WOMENSENEWS)–Irena Lieberman, director of legal services for the Washington D.C.-based Tahirih Justice Center, has a client who was brought to the United States from Africa and forced into domestic slavery.

The woman feared going to the police because her captor threatened to report her to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and have her deported. She reported the crime in spite ofthis threat and sought assistance to remain in the country. Though Congress passed a law overtwo years ago that would help her remain in the United States, the woman is now facing deportation proceedings because the law has yet to be fully implemented.

In October 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. A provision of the law created a new visa–called a U-visa–to allow battered, kidnapped or tortured immigrant women to seek help and prosecute their abusers without fear of deportation. It covers a range of gender-related crimes, such as rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution. Immigrant victims of these crimes who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse and who are willing to cooperate in the investigation or prosecution are eligible to apply for a U-visa. After maintaining a U-visa for three years, a victim can apply for permanent residence in the United States.

Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Department of Justice has not issued the regulations the immigration service needed to implement the U-visa. On March 1, the immigration service became part of the new Department of Homeland Security and the task of issuing the regulations now falls to its secretary, Tom Ridge. The new department has not set a deadline for issuing the regulations.

"Women are afraid to leave and afraid to take the relief Congress intended to give them," said Leslye Orloff, director of the Immigrant Women Program at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Misery Among Women Who Wait

Close to 60 percent of married immigrant women experience domestic violence, according to research cited by the Immigrant Women Program. In a 1998 study conducted by the Migrant Clinicians Network, more than 50 percent of migrant farm worker women reported that they were physically or sexually abused in the past year.

"These are women who have recently escaped domestic violence and who depended on their abusers for money or financial support," said Carolien Hardenbol, associate director for the Immigrant Intervention Project at the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services in New York.

In many states, women are ineligible for cash assistance and other public benefits because of their immigration status. Without Immigration and Naturalization Service action on their cases, women can’t get work authorization, which means they can’t legally work in the United States. The high unemployment rate means most women won’t be able to find under-the-table jobs either. Without the ability to secure work or public benefits, many women find it hard to survive.

"It’s horrific," said Hardenbol. She knows one woman who lives in a single room with five children. "They call me every week and there is nothing I can tell them," she said.

In New York, women have been able to receive welfare benefits once they prove that the immigration service knows they are in the country. But even with this aid, women are barely getting by, says Hardenbol. In addition to the challenge of trying to survive without work, women who have escaped domestic violence are vulnerable to new abusive relationships, illness, anxiety and depression.

Some women can’t even return to their homeland to escape the grinding circumstances of their wait for a U-visa because their abusers were deported and could be waiting for them there. Not safe in their homeland and barely scraping by in this one, they have no place to turn.

Absent Regulations, Advocates Face "Free-for-All"

In 2001, the immigration service issued a six-page memo to establish interim procedure pending regulations on how to implement the law. The memo states that if a non-citizen is identified as a victim, immigration personnel should ensure the person is not prematurely deported. But victims remain at the mercy of immigration district offices, which lack detailed instructions on how to process their cases.

"We desperately need these regulations because, as a practical matter there’s no protection now," said Orloff.

Lieberman says the lack of regulations has made it difficult to defend her client. In order for her client to qualify for a U-visa, a law enforcement officer has to certify that the woman is willing to assist in the investigation of the crime. She has been frustrated in her efforts to get this certification because the officer in charge of the investigation wants an official certification form. The immigration service has yet to issue any U-visa forms.

"Now it’s sort of a free-for-all," said Lieberman. "If there were regulations, advocates could file appropriately and the Immigration and Naturalization Service would know how to proceed."

Local immigration officers, attorneys and judges have offered conflicting policies, says Lieberman.

"A lot of people are stalled and don’t know what to do. That’s the most frustrating part of this," said Cecilia Olavarria, a staff attorney for the Immigrant Women Program at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, "both sides would appreciate having these regulations out there."

Danielle Sheahan, an immigration service spokeswoman, said that the U-visa regulations have been written, but have not yet been cleared.

"Once it is cleared, then, of course it will go on," said Sheahan. "That might be held up quite a bit though, because of our merging with different agencies at this time."

In the meantime, attorneys are doing whatever they can to help their clients until the Department of Homeland Security issues the regulations. And immigrant victims of crime continue to wait.

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer living in Long Beach, Calif.



For more information:

NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund–Immigrant Women:

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service–
"Victims of Violence and Trafficking Protection Act of 2000":

Tahirih Justice Center:



Dwindling Food Supplies and Humanitarian Assistance

The World Food Programme estimates that Iraqis have about five weeks of food left, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children reported yesterday.

About 13 million–60 percent of Iraq’s population–are completely dependent on food aid. Malnutrition already strikes 1.3 million children under the age of five, or one in four.

"U.S. assistance must go beyond the delivery of food and water," said Darla Silva, Washington liaison for the women’s refugee commission. "The United States must specifically incorporate protection, including access to basic services and security from sexual abuse and exploitation into its humanitarian response plans."

The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children said the Bush administration’s recently-released supplemental appropriations request is insufficient for the U.S. to meet its obligations in Iraq without diverting resources from other humanitarian commitments around the world. The commission called for the creation of humanitarian corridors in Southern Iraq that would allow for large-scale humanitarian relief transports and for the reconstruction of Iraq to be transferred to the United Nations at the earliest possible date.

— Alexandra Poolos.