PHOENIX (WOMENSENEWS)–De Colores hides quietly in a tree-populated street of Phoenix. The shelter looks like any other house in the Latino neighborhood. Inside, a small kitchen leads onto a patio were children run. Some families have as many as three bedrooms. It’s a welcoming place for women who often arrive, like Milagros, with just a suitcase.
"I feel at peace here, I don’t want to leave," said Milagros, an assumed name she asked to use to protect her family. She spoke from one of her favorite spots on the patio, where colored cubes provide a seating area. "I value the help I got here, from these people that don’t even know me. I got from them the help I couldn’t get from my family. Here I grew and I was born again."
Milagros is one of the fortunate ones. The shelter cannot meet current demand. Bilingual and bicultural counselors are difficult to find, and it’s even harder when state funding for domestic violence services has been slashed. Moreover, shelter operations are not eligible for special federal funding.
An undocumented migrant, Milagros recalls the decision she made three years ago that led her here. Her husband was dragging her up a set of stairs and the back of her head hit the steps.
Similar things had happened over a decade of marital abuse. The 41-year-old hadn’t reported him to law enforcement because she feared that if she went to the authorities her husband, also an undocumented immigrant, would retaliate.
But at the moment her head hit the stair step, with her 3-year-old daughter as a witness, she knew she had to do something to stop her daughters from being traumatized.
Fear of Separation
"I didn’t fear they would deport me if I denounced him," said Milagros. "I feared I would be separated from my children." Many undocumented women have, in fact, been deported and forced to leave their children who were born in the United States in the custody of the government.
For three years after she left her husband, Milagros was almost homeless, jumping from place to place with her two daughters, until she found De Colores. The Phoenix-based domestic violence shelter specializes in helping undocumented Spanish-speaking migrant women and provides advice on how to pursue legal residence in the United States.
"If I had had the information before, I would have left him earlier," Milagros said.
De Colores, the only bilingual and bicultural shelter for battered immigrant women and their children in Maricopa County, was started in 1986. About 60 percent of its residents are Mexican immigrants, like Milagros. Overall, 95 percent are Latinas.
Since last fiscal year, demand for legal advice and other services has doubled at De Colores, which also has the highest occupancy rate–98 percent–of all shelters in the state. During fiscal year 2008-2009, De Colores received 2,147 calls requesting shelter, legal aid and other types of domestic violence related services. De Colores also offers these services to women who aren’t in the actual shelter.
But the shelter has only 58 emergency beds. This year, the shelter had to refer 1,096 women fleeing abusers to other shelters.
Maribel Castro, clinical supervisor for the shelter, said that amounts to a drastic shortage in a state where 500,000 undocumented immigrants are concentrated in the Phoenix metropolitan area. "We’re always full. When women are calling us we have to deny services because of lack of space," she said.
De Colores is unique in Maricopa County because it provides bilingual and bicultural services. Other shelters have problems finding sufficient numbers of Spanish-speaking caseworkers who are culturally sensitive to the needs of migrant women.
Mirroring a National Problem
The shortage of domestic violence services that cater specifically to Spanish speakers and migrants in Arizona mirrors a national problem.
The National Domestic Violence hotline lists 1,715 shelters that serve domestic violence victims, but only 172–or about 10 percent–self-reported that they include bilingual programs in English and Spanish. That lags behind the overall 12 percent of Spanish speakers calculated by the 2006 American Community Survey.
In addition, not all shelters that offer bilingual services have a specific focus on immigrant monolingual women like the one offered at De Colores.
"There are very few places that have a holistic approach beyond the interpreters. It is not just translating all your materials," said Leni Marin, senior vice president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a national organization based in San Francisco that advocates against violence.
Allie Bones, executive director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, based in Phoenix, said several agencies met recently to brainstorm possible solutions to the Spanish-speaking staff shortage. Her organization lobbies for domestic violence funding in the state legislature. One alternative is for shelters to share resources by using a bilingual speaker on call for a given shift. The state coalition is also exploring ways to pay for telephone translation services.
Funding is also running dry during the recession.
In 2009, the Arizona legislature–which faces an ongoing $2 billion historical deficit–cut domestic violence funding by 18 percent, down to $14 million. De Colores’ operating budget is $1 million and 65 percent of that comes from the state.
"If we cannot replace the funding, we’ll have to eliminate some of the services," said Dottie O’Connell, director of residential services at Chicanos por la Causa, the local nonprofit that runs De Colores. "The women will receive the bed and the food, but then their children won’t receive vital services that protect them."
Other State Shelters Struggling
Other shelters in the state are being forced to reduce staff and cut personnel involved in giving some of the culturally-sensitive services, said Bones. "We have heard that shelters are struggling with providing bilingual advocates and struggling with taking in monolingual women," she said.
Arizona shelters have already received $586,300 extra in federal funding under the American Recovery Act, which is designed to help states struggling to balance their budget during the recession. De Colores did not get a share of that funding.
The federal money–while it is welcomed–can’t go towards shelter operating costs that are vital for keeping them running, said Elizabeth Ditlevson, director of domestic violence services for the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Instead, organizations can only use the money for community-based advocacy and legal services. Federal funding is no substitute for the cuts in state funding, she emphasized.
Domestic violence affects all segments of the population and it isn’t more prevalent among migrant women, several studies have shown.
But battered migrant and refugee women are murdered at higher rates than their counterparts. A recent review of literature nationwide on the subject by the Family Violence Prevention Fund found that while non-fatal intimate partner violence may be lower for Latinas, they’re at a higher risk of homicide than U.S.-born persons. The report suggests this higher rate may shed light on the inadequate response by institutions to this population.
That might be because Latinas face numerous challenges as they seek help, including limited language proficiency, social isolation, immigration status and lack of knowledge of the legal system.
Even when battered immigrant women do find a safe haven, they are often plagued by fears of deportation, said Marisela Flores, executive director of De Colores. "Right now there’s a pronounced fear by undocumented immigrant women."
Crackdown Creates Distrust
In Arizona, the crackdown on illegal immigration by politicians like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has created a climate of fear among undocumented immigrant victims.
For the past two years, Arpaio’s deputies have conducted "crime suppression patrols" in neighborhoods and worksite raids on businesses to detect undocumented immigrants. The sweeps have created distrust among immigrant communities when it comes to reporting crimes.
In contrast, last week the Obama administration recommended political asylum for a Guatemalan woman fleeing horrific abuse by her husband, the strongest signal yet that the administration is open to a variety of asylum claims from foreign women facing domestic abuse. The case, brought to a 14-year legal battle by Rodi Alvarado Peña, will end with her gaining asylum and is expected to positively influence other immigrant claims related to abuse.
The federal Violence Against Women Act includes special visas for battered undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. The visa also provides the holder the right to apply for legal residency on their own. A type of visa, called a U visa, also offers protection to victims in cases where the abusive husband is an undocumented immigrant as well.
Still, migrant women don’t always believe it.
"I’m afraid they would send me an order of deportation if I ask for help or fill paperwork for a visa," said undocumented migrant Laura González, 36, who was a victim of physical abuse by her husband, an undocumented migrant, for more than a decade.
After threatening to kill Gonzales, her husband committed suicide in front of her children three years ago. She’s never sought help, she told Women’s eNews. She’s too afraid.
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist in Phoenix, Arizona.