Dolly Guerrero

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WOMENSENEWS)–Maira Farfan, 42, fled her home in Guatemala and crossed into the United States on foot in 2000.

Farfan endured physical violence from the father of her three children for 18 years and still bears the scars from the day he broke her foot. She says she might be dead if she had stayed in Guatemala.

"Over there, I lived in fear," says Farfan, in Spanish. "Here, I live in fear because of immigration."

Now she faces possible deportation as a result of a mass arrest this summer. She fears that back in Guatemala her abuser is still waiting for her.

Immigration officers and state police arrested 30 other undocumented workers hired to clean Rhode Island courthouses during a series of raids on their workplaces in mid-July.

Among them was a 45-year-old woman who did not want to use her name out of fear that speaking could affect her case. She suffered emotional and physical violence at the hands of her husband for 22 years before fleeing to the United States.

"I won’t go back to Guatemala," she says. "I am going to beg, ‘Send me to Europe, send me to Spain, send me to China, but don’t send me back to Guatemala.’"

The fates of these women may hang on the landmark case of Rodi Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman now living in the United States whose case has sparked heated debate about whether domestic violence is grounds for asylum.

Alvarado suffered horrific physical abuse from her husband and was refused help by the Guatemalan government before fleeing to the United States.

A San Francisco immigration judge granted Alvarado asylum in 1996, but the Board of Immigration Appeals overturned the decision in 1999. Attorneys General Janet Reno and John Ashcroft, in 2001 and 2005, respectively, told the board to re-examine the case. Now the board awaits final regulations from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

Precedent Missing

Without these regulations or clear precedent, asylum cases depend largely on the individual asylum officer or immigration judge, says Karen Musalo, a San Francisco lawyer who represented Alvarado.

The power afforded individual judges can hurt asylum-seekers. Justice Department data indicate that immigration judges who were chosen between 2004 and 2007 by the Bush administration ruled disproportionately against asylum-seekers, according to news reports in August.

Musalo says some women have gained asylum if their home government is unable or unwilling to protect them, as is the case in Guatemala.

Farfan says a lawyer told her that she has been in the United States too long without documentation to seek asylum.

Zulma Garcia, director of policy for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, based in Warwick, says language barriers and fear of deportation can isolate undocumented women. With state police now participating in federal immigration raids like those in Rhode Island this summer, immigrants are unlikely to call police for help.

Abusers may also use immigration status to control undocumented women as shown by the case of Dolly Guerrero, 54, a Colombia native who was also arrested in the Rhode Island raids.

U.S. Husband Breaks Promise

Guerrero, of Providence, says she was manipulated into coming to the United States with a tourist visa (now expired) by the false promises of her husband, a U.S. resident she met online. Despite her pleas, Guerrero’s husband refused to help "legalize" her after they married in 2004. Guerrero says her husband is psychologically and verbally abusive.

"He totally robbed me of my personality," says Guerrero, in Spanish. "What he said was the only thing that had value. I didn’t have the right to speak. He basically converted me into a slave in this house. I couldn’t leave without his permission."

Afraid to contact the police without having the proper papers, Guerrero eventually met a lawyer who told her that a federal law–the Violence Against Women Act–might allow her to petition for her own green card.

But before sending that application Guerrero was arrested.

Now immigration authorities have Guerrero trapped in her husband’s house. Though she has taken off her wedding ring, she is forced to wear an ankle bracelet and stay inside the house from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day, at least until her court date at the end of September.

While Guerrero has been in contact with numerous local domestic violence groups, there is little that such groups can do in the face of federal immigration law. Guerrero will cite the Violence Against Women Act in her defense, but meanwhile her lawyer has advised her to stay in her house.

Federal Law Offers Aid

The federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994 provides some protections for women in Guerrero’s situation, says Nancy Kelly, attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services. The law, for instance, says immigrants facing abuse by their citizen or legal resident spouses may petition for cancellation of deportation under certain conditions and apply for green cards.

Under the updated 2000 Violence Against Women Act, immigrants who are victims of crime can also apply for U-visas, which permit them to stay in the United States if they cooperate with criminal investigations or trials.

Many of the immigrant women arrested in a May raid on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, have applied for U-visas because they endured sexual assault and abuse, says Leslye Orloff, associate vice president of the New York legal advocacy group Legal Momentum. Orloff directs the group’s Washington-based immigrant women program.

To begin the application process, immigrants must pay $545 for themselves and each child they need to include on the application.

"So if you have a woman with five kids, you’re talking about a little over $3,000," says Orloff. "The real irony here . . . is that they have to pay for it before they get legal work authorization."

Zulma Garcia notes that U-visa applicants need to provide extensive documentation of their abuse, a major barrier for women who, out of fear, may never have reported to police.

Amy Littlefield is a student at Brown University and a freelance reporter.