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Undocumented Women and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence only gets more complicated when you’re undocumented—One survivor’s unforgettable journey.

October 21, 2016
By Brian Pacheco

My left ring fingernail is painted purple right now and so many people have asked me why. I paint it as part of Safe Horizon’s #PutTheNailinIt campaign to signify my vow to end domestic violence and the silence that so often surrounds it. As a proud Puerto-Rican Latino, I look at my nail and think of one story that immediately comes to mind.

Having citizenship is a privilege and the harsh realities of immigration, such as deportation, never followed my family.

When I was a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, I was confronted with how immigration was intertwined with the silent epidemic of domestic violence. I remember translating a migrant farmer’s situation to local advocates. She told me that her husband had abused her in the same room her young child was sleeping.

Days later, I learned that she had chosen to stay with her husband. I was troubled, but I learned from others how common it was for the wives and girlfriends of local migrant workers to stay with their abusive partners. They did this for many of the reasons that others of all backgrounds do — for love, for the kids, for financial support, among other things. But for undocumented women who wanted to leave, it was above all their immigration status and the fear of deportation that kept them in an abusive relationship. They had a very rational fear: “If I go to authorities and report the abuse, what will happen to me?”

Undocumented Women and Domestic Violence

The truth is that being a victim of domestic violence while being undocumented is a real challenge. Last year, I met an undocumented 34-year old woman from Guatemala who was staying with her two daughters at Safe Horizon’s domestic violence shelter Rose House. She spent 13 years with a financially abusive husband who, in an attempt to control her, blocked her path to citizenship. Below, in her own words, as told to Refinery29, is her powerful story of surviving domestic violence and how Safe Horizon helped move her from crisis to confidence:

“…My being undocumented gave power to my husband. He would constantly remind me of how little resources I had and he would always mock me by saying, ‘Buy a Social Security card, buy an ID. because you’ll never get one.’ I was aware that I had very limited resources. For even paying the electricity bill you need some form of identification, so I felt powerless.

Right now, I’m not working. My immigration attorney suggested that I just wait. I’ve received a work permit, but I’m waiting for it to arrive from the mail. I’ve been looking, actively searching for employment — it’s just essential to provide basic needs — but I’m also keeping in mind what the immigration attorney suggested, to just have patience.

I’ve been at [Safe Horizon’s Rose House domestic violence shelter] for six months. Before that, I lived in an emergency shelter for three months. When I went to the emergency shelter, I had been living with my husband in a Bronx apartment. My husband is 23 years older than me. I came with him from Guatemala in 2000. He kicked me out of the out of the house and he said that he was gonna go to court and claim full custody of the children. He stated that because he was a U.S. citizen and I am undocumented, he was gonna take the kids and I would not be able to have them.

We dated for six years. After six years, we were married for nine years, legally. When we were married, he would always start the process for me to gain citizenship, but never completed it, because he said once I became a resident I would leave him.

He was a U.S. citizen. He’s always been a U.S. citizen. When we met in Guatemala, he was a different person. Since coming to the United States, he changed. The only time I’ve had to see him over the past year was in court — we’ve been in a child custody battle for over a year. It just ended three weeks ago. I was granted full custody.

I never suffered physical violence — it was always verbal, emotional, and financial. I never sought help, because I never experienced physical violence, so I felt like I wasn’t experiencing domestic violence. I didn’t work when I was in that relationship — the only money was coming from him. I always had to ask for money. For instance, if we were out of toilet paper, I would have to go and ask him and say, ‘There’s no toilet paper.’ So he would give me money, but I would have to provide a receipt to him at the end.

After I left, he tried to get me to come back. He contacted my family in Guatemala — my family didn’t know what had happened, but he called them and told them that we had suffered some issues in the relationship and he spoke to my father. But my dad said he knew I wouldn’t have left if it wasn’t something big.

My kids have helped me so much in this process. I had never seen them run and jump and play like they did when we first arrived at the first shelter we were at. I found a lot of support in my church community. They’ve helped and they’ve helped my three girls.

To undocumented women who are in an abusive situation, I would say to look for help, because there is someone to help. You may feel like you’re alone and you have nowhere to go, but there are people, there are places that will help you. My husband used to tell me not talk to people, because, ‘Everybody is bad — you don’t know what their intentions are.’ But now, I have friends at the shelter, at my church, and at my children’s schools. Now, I can go up to another mom and just talk to them. I feel at ease.”

Be a part of the solution. Safe Horizon’s #PutTheNailinIt campaign asks people to support survivors of abuse and take a stand against domestic violence. Have you taken the #PutTheNailinIt vow to end domestic violence? Visit www.putthenailinit.org to learn how your vow can help victims become survivors.

Safe Horizon believes that all victims of violence or abuse, including domestic violence, should be able to seek justice without fear because of their immigration status. You can help ensure that all victims of violence can seek justice by signing our pledge here.

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  • Brian Pacheco

    Brian Pacheco is a public relations, marketing and communications professional with nearly 10 years of experience promoting social justice and equality. He joined Safe Horizon’s staff in 2015. Previously, he was the director of public relations and communications for Hetrick-Martin Institute, an organization that helps homeless LGBT youth and held positions at the Diverse Elders Coalition (DEC), Services and Advocacy for GLTB Elders (SAGE) and GLSEN.