For 10 years Juanita Flores struggled to find her way out of an abusive marriage. She was undocumented, had two small children, no opportunities for legal employment, and lived in constant fear of her husband’s physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Five years ago, the last time she saw him, he put her in the hospital with a skull fracture. The next day she left Dallas. But it was only this year that she was able to get a special visa that could help her remain in the U.S.
Flores, who declined to give her real name for fear her husband would continue to threaten her family, is one of thousands of immigrant women who live in the U.S. in dangerous situations because of a lack of protections that address violence against women.
The Senate-backed immigration bill currently being considered by Congress and the newly introduced bill both include provisions that address the unique needs of women and families.
Studies show that immigrant women experience higher rates of gender-based violence than those born in the U.S. Statistics are hard to come by because undocumented women often live in the shadows. According to the advocacy organization Breakthrough, immigrant women are three to six times more likely to experience domestic violence than U.S.-born women. Between 34 to 49 percent of non-citizen women experience domestic violence in their lives, which increases to 60 percent for those who are married and to 77 percent for those who are dependent on spouses for immigration status.
Pramila Jayapal, is the co-chair of the We Belong Together campaign, which recently organized a Washington D.C. demonstration where more than 100 women were arrested. She has been critical of immigration reform efforts in the past because she says they don’t adequately address the needs of women.
"Fifty one percent of immigrants to the U.S. are women, and three quarters are women and children," she says. "And the immigration debate for so long has not been defined as an issue of women and children. You see a lot of mainstream images of immigrants as men scaling a border wall, which is such a tiny percent of how people actually get here. We want to make sure people know what this debate is really about."
Although she sees the immigration debate as male-centered, Jayapal also sees many of the provisions included as major steps towards creating pathways to citizenship for women who are vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence, workplace abuses, human trafficking and separation from their families. And despite the slim chances of immigration reform passing in the midst of a government shutdown and explicit resistance from Republican members of Congress, she remains optimistic.
"This isn’t the time to sit back and wring our hands and say we can’t get this done. We owe it to the millions of people who are going to continue to be manipulated, abused, exploited, living in the shadows, who are not part of our democracy and not part of our society," she says.
Maria Hernández is one of those people who was once living in the shadows. She was among the women arrested at the We Belong Together demonstration, and is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and survivor of domestic violence. She came to the U.S. from Mexico City by crossing the border when she was 17 years old looking for work and a better life. She came with a cousin who was around her same age and soon after met her husband. The trouble began after she got pregnant.
"He forced me to have an abortion," she says in Spanish. "It was even worse for me because I grew up Catholic and knew I had committed one of the worst sins. It was terrible. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it."
Hernández endured 15 years with her husband, during which time he continued to be abusive, often in front of their children.
She says she knew she was risking deportation by participating in the demonstration, and had prepared her three daughters in San Francisco for the possibility she might not be coming home. But she said she felt compelled to take the risk in honor of women like her who struggled to escape their abusive spouses because of their immigration status.
"It’s my passion," she says. "It’s important that women immigrants are seen and heard. We are a huge part of this country, and we support this country."
The Senate-backed comprehensive immigration reform bill includes certain provisions to address situations like the ones Hernández and Flores faced. Among them is an increase in the number of U visas granted each year, which are visas reserved for those who have been victims of crimes in the U.S. and are willing to cooperate with law enforcement. Nearly all of the qualifying crimes for U visas go fall under the categories of domestic and sexual violence and abduction. Each fiscal year, the government issues 10,000 U visas.
Lisa Koop, Associate Director of Legal Services for the National Immigrant Justice Center, says the government has reached the cap on U Visas for three consecutive years, and she believes these visas only reach a fraction of abused immigrant women. "We haven’t seen any reduction in the numbers of survivors of domestic violence," Koop says. "We can’t accept or place every case. There’s a huge need, and it’s something that I don’t think is going away any time soon."
She also says a number of factors lead to non-citizen women being particularly at risk for domestic violence. Abusive partners often threaten to withdraw their sponsorship petition or claim their marriage is a fraud, or to call the police and have the woman deported.
"Undocumented women are often terrified of law enforcement, and usually very reluctant to call police or report domestic violence. And if they have children they are particularly afraid of getting deported," she says.
And Koop says there are cultural factors at play, and many women come to the U.S. from countries that tolerate or outright condone violence against women. Combined with being unable to find stable employment, all of these factors limit the amount of control immigrant women can have over their circumstances.
Should the immigration reform pass this year, the number of U visas would double to 20,000, potentially offering twice as many women the opportunity to leave an abusive situation. The qualifications for receiving a U visa would also be expanded to those who’ve experienced workplace abuses.
Juanita Flores was granted a U visa in January, and thanks to that visa she can now receive work authorization, and she has a path to citizenship that will prevent her from being deported and separated from her three children, all of whom are U.S. citizens.
"My [U visa] was a blessing. If I would have been sent back to Mexico I would probably be dead. My ex-husband is there now."
But U visas can’t be the only solution, particularly since they require immigrant women to work directly with law enforcement, which some are reluctant to do. And Koop says some police officers have refused to sign an official U visa certification and have given only limp excuses for not cooperating.
Other provisions in the Senate-backed immigration reform bill would give women the opportunity to gain some financially stability by providing a work visa for those who qualify under VAWA or for a U or T visa, and would make immigrant women eligible for certain assisted and public housing, both of which could make it easier for women to escape abusive spouses.
U visas, employment authorization, and public housing provisions in immigration reform would benefit more than just undocumented immigrant women. Seventy percent of women who enter the U.S. with legal status come through family sponsorship, and some come as a spouse to a legal permanent resident or person with a non-immigrant visa, such as an education visa. And during the long wait for official status to come through they are bound to their sponsor, and in many cases either ineligible or required to wait several years for work authorization, thereby making them subject to the same vulnerabilities as undocumented immigrants.
Grace Huang, the Public Policy Director for the Washington State Coalition Against Violence, agrees that the bill has some exciting things in it, but that immigration isn’t the only way to create systems to help women who’ve experienced domestic violence.
"We have multiple strategies happening simultaneously, including extensive administrative advocacy," she says. "We are trying to include these pieces in the comprehensive bill, but if it doesn’t pass, we will try via other vehicles."
But, she added that with so much effort going into pushing for provisions in the Senate-backed immigration bill, it would be the most effective way to make things happen. "There are some things that have to be done in legislation," she says.