ILJ Affiliate Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice works with Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence.
Trigger warning: this story includes mentions of violence, rape, and child abuse.
“I don’t care what he does with my immigration papers anymore. I need to be alive for my children.”
Alicia,* a domestic violence survivor and Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice client.
Alicia’s husband routinely threatened her with her uncertain immigration status; declaring that he wouldn’t help her obtain her Lawful Permanent Residence (green card); that he would skip the required interview; and that he would withdraw the petition he had filed for her altogether.
When that power he had over her wasn’t enough to satisfy him, he also liked to beat and choke her. One day, he choked her so hard that she thought she might die. And if she died, what would then happen to her children? That was when she knew she had to find a way out.
Alicia is now the client of Laura Mendoza, a Dept of Justice Accredited Representative for ILJ affiliate Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice. When we ask Laura what drives victims of domestic violence to finally take that first step toward freedom, her answer is as succinct as it is inarguable:
“Sometimes they just don’t want to be killed,” she says. “It’s just that bad.”
Alicia sought help under the VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act), which allows spouses and family members of abusive U.S. citizens or permanent residents to petition for a green card themselves. With the support of Iowa MMJ, she will one day be able to make a safe and secure life for herself and her children.
Laura estimates that 80% of her clients are survivors of domestic violence. She helps them navigate through the process of applying for VAWA or a U Visa, a form of immigration relief available for survivors of crimes who are willing and able to fully cooperate with law enforcement in prosecuting their abusers.
Since only 10,000 U Visas are granted each year in the entire country, it can take years to obtain one. In the meantime, eligible applicants can be granted a bona fide determination, providing them with protection from deportation and the ability to apply for a work permit.
“Being able to work changes their lives,” says Laura passionately. “They can get a cell phone in their own name. They can get their own apartment. They can begin to get out of a terrible situation.”
As part of the requirement for a U Visa, some clients are forced to testify against their abusers. This is a scary scenario for any survivor of domestic violence but can be particularly frightening for an immigrant survivor married to someone from their hometown in their native country.
“The abuser’s family will often threaten the victim’s family in their hometown,” explains Laura. “They threaten to hurt them, kill them, or find ways to persecute them because of their relative’s actions.”
In one extreme case, the survivor’s testimony was critical to the prosecution’s case against her abusive husband. He was convicted and then deported back to their home country. For revenge, he tracked down his wife’s younger sister and raped her.
Domestic abusers have so many ways to exert power and control over their immigrant partners; a lack of English makes it easier to isolate them. A lack of legal status and financial means makes it easier to intimidate them. And threats to take away children make it easier to terrorize them.
But we shouldn’t discount the part that religion, culture, and customs can play in keeping an abused spouse or intimate partner tied to the abuser, says Laura.
“A mother tells her daughter she must stay with her husband, even if he beats her, because that is what the mother did with her father,” she explains. “Or the church tells them they must obey the man and do what God says is right. Or they are told that they must stay with the abuser for the well-being of the children.”
“But that is not true,” says Laura. “The children are not doing well. And the mothers deserve to feel safe and to be happy.”
Laura says this with conviction because she lived through it, and she knows it is true.
“My parents separated when I was nine years old,” Laura explains. “He was an abusive father. I remember how he used to hit my mother right in front of us. He would punch her really hard.”
Laura was the youngest of three sisters.
“Many times, we asked her to leave him,” she says. “But she didn’t have the resources to take us with her. And she wouldn’t leave us behind.”
The day came, however, when her mother had no other choice. She left her daughters and fled north, hoping to establish a new life for them in the U.S. The years that followed were precarious ones for the sisters. Their father would habitually take off for months at a time, leaving them with no money or food in the house. The sisters were forced to fend for themselves as best they could.
Yet they never once wished their mother would return.
“We were happy our mother left and was safe,” says Laura simply. “And happy we didn’t see violence any longer.”
Eventually, Laura’s mother was able to send for all three sisters, and they all created good lives for themselves in their new home. As for the trauma of their childhood, both Laura and Isabel, her eldest sister, draw upon these experiences in their chosen fields.
Isabel is a legal clinic director for Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and recently joined Laura for a presentation on domestic violence in the immigrant community hosted by Iowa MMJ.
Isabel also helps Laura when the work becomes overwhelming, and she must deal with secondhand trauma. It can be very hard to hear stories, day in and day out, of brutality, pain, and suffering. But Laura knows better than anyone how important it is for survivors to share their experiences with her.
“I don’t know you,” one of her clients told Laura recently. “But you know the stories that I have never, ever told anyone before. You are like my best friend. Even though you sometimes don’t have answers for me, it feels so good to talk to you.”
The clients may come to Laura for her assistance and legal expertise. However, her compassion, authority, and insight on the issues surrounding domestic violence also make her an excellent listener.
And the people who walk through Laura’s door need that, too.
*Name changed to protect client’s privacy.
Special thanks to Laura Mendoza for encouraging us to center her personal experiences in this story.
Cover photo: Creative Commons License and in the Public Domain.