Ann Paden’s experience in Atlanta gives her a new perspective on domestic abuse and the vulnerability of immigrants.
“Can I trust you?”
These were often the first words I heard from new clients. No introduction was needed or wanted until I uttered the validating word, “Yes,” from across the table. As a legal advocate at Tapestri, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, I saw many of my immigrant and refugee clients consumed by fear, desperation, and insecurity, and I quickly realized that many of the women I helped only contacted Tapestri because they truly had no where else to turn. They were victims of domestic violence and usually undocumented, making the seriousness of their situation that much more intense and pressing. These women were trapped and alone, and Tapestri’s role was to help them in any way we could. I spent my eight-week internship doing everything from providing transportation for clients, to helping them write an affidavit, to providing legal referrals so the client could start the arduous process of applying for legal permanent residency. Every day was a new challenge, and I felt by the end of the internship that I had made a real difference in numerous women’s lives. What I didn’t realize until weeks later, however, was that these women had much more of an impact on my beliefs and my future than I’d ever thought possible.
Experts estimate that there are currently eleven million undocumented immigrants living in America. Men, women, and children travel from all over the world, sometimes fleeing violence and discrimination in their home country, to America where hopes of prosperity, safety, and freedom await. More than 60% of the eleven million undocumented immigrants in America have lived here for more than ten years, and as assimilated into American culture as they may seem, undocumented immigrants are oftentimes forced into isolation and in constant fear of deportation. These factors prove to be particularly valuable for abusers: undocumented women are especially prone to domestic violence because of the many aspects of immigration that make them vulnerable to abuse. Many women who arrive here speak no English, have little education, have no knowledge of their rights and no means of transportation. They distrust authorities and constantly fear deportation. The abuser can lie to the victim about her legal rights and hold her immigration status over her head. This is the perfect combination for a woman to be coerced into an abusive relationship, be manipulated, and become trapped.
Oftentimes, the women we work with hear about Tapestri through the police or court system after they’ve filed a protective order or called the police for a domestic violence disturbance. Authorities inform the women of Tapestri and our work, but even in cases of extreme violence or abuse, undocumented immigrants don’t always feel that they can trust authorities or the police. Many come from countries where the police don’t protect their citizens, and even in America, many counties, especially in Southern states, legally permit police to communicate with immigration authorities. If someone calls in a domestic violence disturbance, the police have the right to ask for legal papers before they even address the disturbance. If the person cannot produce the necessary papers, the police are allowed to contact immigration authorities to start deportation proceedings, even if the mother has American-born children. Women oftentimes endure violence because they are scared of deportation and separation from their families. Tapestri works hard to help women transcend this very real fear of abuse and deportation through direct legal services and legal advocacy.
Domestic violence cases can be complicated, arduous, and long-term. Many people and agencies lack the patience, time, or resources to see the case through. Tapestri pledges to stay with the survivor throughout her journey and maintain contact with her and her family even after the immediate situation passes. By building trust and friendship, we help to heal a person and a family, and they begin to thrive. Almost every client I worked with yearned to become documented, and based on their claims of domestic violence we could usually help them apply for one of two paths to legal permanent residency (LPR): the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and a U-Visa. VAWA circumnavigates the abuser, who must be an American citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent of the victim, to obtain a green card. A U-Visa serves a dual purpose: to assist immigrant victims who have suffered serious harm from an abuser (not necessarily a spouse or an American citizen) and to assist law enforcement by providing helpful information to bring the criminal to justice. Both application processes are difficult and essentially impossible to complete without a lawyer’s assistance. Tapestri legal advocates act as middlemen between the client and lawyer to help expedite the process, make the lawyer’s job easier, and keep the client as healthy and as safe as possible.
A U-Visa application currently entails a 13 month waiting period, but if approved, a person may be qualified to have status in the United States for up to four years and to receive a work permit and thus a driver’s license and social security card. After three years of this status, this person is able to apply for legal permanent residency—that is, receive a green card. Similarly, if a self-petition VAWA is approved, the victim becomes eligible for a work permit (including a driver’s license and social security card) as well as some public benefits, depending on the state. With both the U-Visa and VAWA, the applicant needs to prove that she and her abuser entered into the marriage or relationship in good faith and that she suffered from extreme cruelty. To do this, she must provide detailed evidence of abuse. The complicated VAWA and U-Visa applications must also be concise and organized, as reviewers spend only a short time on each application. With our continued dedication and hard work, Tapestri has an outstanding success rate and reputation. Clients continually report that because of Tapestri, they feel safe and have hope again.
The main thing I take away from this internship is that there is no “face” to domestic violence. Domestic violence is not limited to a certain socioeconomic class or ethnic group, and nearly one in four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lifetime. Those who are poor or more vulnerable than others, however, like undocumented immigrant women, have an even greater need for help and advocacy. We need more people and organizations that actively work to turn the abused from victims to survivors, and we must have more resources available for survivors. More funding for organizations like Tapestri should be a priority. Victims, both men and women, need to know that they are not alone and should not be ashamed of their abuse.
Moreover, beyond these temporary solutions, we need to address a larger problem. Undocumented immigrants, particularly those affected by domestic violence, are notoriously mistreated and unprotected by the law and authorities. It continues to be difficult to navigate a clear pathway to citizenship, and while the demand for Visas for employment and family members has increased over the past few decades, the number of Visas actually issued per year remains unchanged since the 1990s. To address immigration, government must first seek to understand the reasons it occurs and to understand the plethora of ways that immigrants contribute to our country. Immigration from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, for example has increased ten times since 2011. These individuals are fleeing incredible poverty and violence: civilians in these countries are twice as likely to be killed than in Iraq during the height of the war. Through Tapestri, I saw that many immigrants come to America from situations like this in search of prosperity and opportunity, and they continue to work hard to overcome barriers to achieve true freedom. No one should live in fear, and thanks to Tapestri, I now understand that without the eleven million undocumented immigrants in America, I would live in a very different nation. Immigrants and their contributions to America are no longer invisible to me.