USA: Are Immigrant Women Denied Rights Under Violence Protection Laws?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011
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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

When President Obama introduced new legislation to combat domestic violence in October 2011, the U.S. administration promised a $25 million a year budget for programs that hope to bring domestic violence prevention organizations to the table along with recent $150 million dollar funded federal extension programs for Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Grants.

“Despite tremendous progress, an average of three women in America die as a result of domestic violence each day,” said President Obama in an October 2011 Proclamation made from the White House Briefing Room for National Domestic Violence Month.

The new money aims to bring domestic violence protection programs to women across the U.S. It is set to help pay for the training of staff members across the country who are working inside domestic violence services agencies. The money has been allotted so agencies can develop ‘best practices' within the policies for domestic violence prevention.

Even with improved laws and federal programs, one in four women in the U.S. still experiences domestic violence within her lifetime. Approximately 1,400 women a year – four every day – die in the United States as a result of domestic violence.

“Domestic violence homicides are often predictable and therefore preventable in many cases,” says White House Advisor on
Violence Against Women Lynn Rosenthal. “The proposed legislation encourages states and local communities to screen victims for warning signs and provide immediate intervention for those at risk.”

Key to the U.S. legislation are efforts to improve police response to domestic violence crimes. “The proposed legislation will help improve the law enforcement response to these crimes, build strong cases that can be successfully prosecuted, and link victims with services,” added Rosenthal.

“So often, victims of domestic abuse suffer in silence – they don't know where to turn, and they often have no one to turn to…,” said then Democratic Senator Barack Obama at the Apna Ghar Domestic Violence Shelter in April 2006 before his 2008 presidential bid.

“Bruises will disappear but his words keep echoing in my minds, in my ears and even up to this day drive me crazy.”

These are the words of an abused immigrant woman who came to the U.S. on a Fiancé visa. She did not know anyone, did not speak English and for a whole host of reasons did not want to go back to her home country. WNN reporter Elahe Amani met her in one of the women's shelters in Los Angeles County in 1990.

“Of the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide, the vast majority are female,” said pop music celebrity and Global Ambassador for Oxfam Annie Lenox on International Woman's Day 2011.

Dangers of Corruption and Violence

Immigration is no longer a male dominated phenomenon. It comes with its own set of dangers that are exclusive to women. One of the dangers for women is poverty. Seventy percent of those living in extreme poverty are women.

Sexual assault during an immigrant woman's journey to the U.S. is not uncommon. “Women and girl migrants, especially those without legal status traveling in remote areas or on trains, are at heightened risk of sexual violence at the hands of criminal gangs, people traffickers, other migrants or corrupt officials,” says Amnesty International in their April 2010 report, “Invisible Migrants on the Move in Mexico.”

“Migrants who have been raped have to deal not only with the stigma associated with sexual violence, but also with the risk that if they report the crime they may be deported or that seeking treatment will deprive them of their one chance of reaching the USA. As a result, women migrants rarely report sexual violence and are very unlikely to file criminal complaints,” continued the Amnesty report.

According to the IOM – International Organization for Migration “women and men migrate for different reasons, use different channels, and have different experiences.” Women often make decisions to migrate away from home countries to improve conditions for their family. They also often face prolonged isolation as they face the challenges and that come from immigrant discrimination.

Legal Status in Spite of Fear

Limiting a woman under what is usually a strong ‘arm of power,' an abuser may control and limit the communication a woman has with family and friends back home. Abusers may also permit a woman to have little to no contact with neighbors or people in their community to prevent a woman from making new friends.

Abusers may also control a woman's access to using the phone or the internet. They may also stop a woman from listening to ethnic language radio or television programs. In some instances women may even be locked inside their home when their abuser is away.

“He needed a servant and a nanny for his kids.”

Regardless of being in the U.S. legally or illegally, immigrant women face challenges above and beyond other women in the U.S. Language barriers reinforce isolation for women who may-or-may-not be allowed to attend classes, or learn to speak or read-and-write in English. With an abuser's limited help or follow up on the necessary paperwork for ‘legal status,' women are often kept dependent, fearful and in the dark.

So why do so many immigrant women remain in abusive relationships?

The dream of a new life for immigrants in the U.S. brings with it a desire to take a chance on a new life. Unfortunately, the abusive family member is often the one who holds the key to a woman's immigration status dreams.

Too often, an abusive husband, boyfriend or fiancé uses the family visa process to control an undocumented spouse or partner. Deportation and the fear of imminent deportation are real limitations to women who may want to report crimes but cannot free themselves from the cycle of abuse.

As immigrant women face discrimination with lack of many legal protections as undocumented members of society, the struggle for them is apparent. Women who are U.S. citizens, especially ethnic minorities or women suffering from poverty in America, struggle also to find protection.

In 1999 American citizen Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), who has a Native American and Latina heritage, was denied police protection in Castle Rock, Colorado during a legal court order of restraint against her husband Simon Gonzalez. Even with what appeared to be legal protection with the restraining order Lenahan's process with the police was not too different than many immigrant women who try to contact law enforcement when crisis emergency situations of home violence arise.

“He beat me frequently (not in front of the kids) and he said bad words to me that crashed my self-esteem and self-respect. But, I think hitting is better than the words that mutilated my soul.”

“Slowly but surely he (Simon Gonzales) just became very controlling with what I wore and who I spoke to,” says Lenahan describing her home life with her 3 young daughters and the escalating of domestic violence in her 10-and-a-half year marriage. “It slowly crept in,” she outlines. “He started acting really erratic.” With “threats of wanting to kill himself and threatening his neighbors,” Jessica was alone in her struggle for safety. “‘I'm going to die. You're going to die. Somebody's going to die',” Jessica shared as she quoted her husband's statements.

“When you're a victim you try to portray life like it's fine [and] there's nothing wrong. But when my children were starting to become affected and become frightened of him I just decided that we're just going to tell the truth and no matter how painful or shameful I felt at that time that it was really necessary to do what I needed to do to protect my children,” added Lenahan.

In 1999 Lenahan's restraining order against her husband legally required him to leave their home and stay at least 100 yards away from herself and her daughters. While under order for temporary restraint, Jessica's husband kidnapped their three daughters as they were playing outside together in the front yard.
Jessica called the police immediately. But she waited hours before law enforcement showed up. When they arrived she showed the police the restraining order. But the police decided not to follow Lenahan's request for help. “Because they were with their father,” she described.

“In my community the woman is the one who is always being blamed…”

“Throughout the evening they [the police] didn't look for them at all,” she continued. “They were very dismissive of any requests I made and belittling to me for even asking them for help. They called me ‘ridiculous' at one point,” she outlined.

That night in 1999 at 3:20 a.m. Simon Gonzales showed up with his daughters at the Castle Rock police station. He had purchased a gun. He opened fire on the police. They fired back killing Gonzales. When law enforcement went to open Simon's car they found a staggering scene; Jessica's three daughters had been shot to death in the cab of Simon's truck.

Almost five years later after losing her children and her husband in 2004, Jessica Lenahan filed a legal case against the Castle Rock Police Department for refusing to comply with her restraining order against her husband. Her case went on to the United States Federal Supreme Court where numerous advocates were surprised it was struck down.

“The United States Supreme Court said that I had no constitutional right to police protection or enforcement of my restraining order,” remarked Lenahan. “So if restraining orders are not enforced, then they're not worth the paper they're written on.”

After her climb to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Lenahan did not give up though. On October 22, 2008 she pushed her case with advocates and a legal petition against the U.S. Government before the Washington D.C. based international human rights commission the IACHR – Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Her petition – ‘Gonzales v. U.S.A.,' before the international human rights tribunal finally granted recognition of her plea for protection. A recent IACHR August 2011 final decision in her favor has identified that all women and children do have human rights to be protected from violence in the United States. This decision brought greater examination of the issues by public advocates, laypersons, the U.S. government and foreign policy makers covering human rights and the protection of women and children.

“For everything, I had to ask for his permission.”

“I want to know why the police ignored my calls for help,” said Lenahan during her IACHR tribunal. “I know I cannot bring my children back from that night. The emptiness I feel when I remember my daughters and the great lives they might have lived; nothing can bring them back. Nothing. What I can do however is to be a voice for the voiceless and women who are promised protection in America and denied it the moment they're in danger.”

The frustrations in getting police protection are shared by many women who suffer under poverty, discrimination and exclusion. Immigrant women, like their U.S. citizen counterparts, may become targets of not only violence by an abuser but by the very same system that is working to set up programs to help them.

“Encounters with the criminal justice system are fraught with danger for any defendant who is not a United States citizen, particularly with the recent revision of immigration laws and increasingly aggressive enforcement efforts,” said the New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts (2009). “In 1984, only 1000 immigrants were deported because of criminal convictions. By 2000, this number had risen to 71,000,” continues the Committee.

Physical abuse can also come when an immigrant woman refuses to follow the code of silence that many abusers demand.
As abusers threaten to withdraw a woman's visa petition they may also threaten to call immigration authorities in an act of intimidation.

Constant fears of deportation haunt many women who live despondent lives under ongoing threats by their abusers.
Immigrant Women and U.S. Law

VAWA – the Violence Against Women Act is a landmark piece of legislation that seeks to improve criminal justice and community-based responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in the United States.

“I was excited to come to US, but since my arrival I have not had one happy day.”

Following the efforts of thousands of women, human rights advocates and concerned U.S. citizens, the original version of the bill was finally signed into law in 1994 after 4 years of exhaustive investigative testimony given before Congress by experts on violence, state and federal police authorities, physicians, scholars and victims of domestic violence crimes.

The goal was to encourage targeted local community response to domestic violence. VAWA was reauthorized in 2000 and again in 2005, each time with new and more comprehensive program initiatives.

For the very first time in U.S. history VAWA brought local police departments together to work with social services programs and private nonprofit organizations. The results brought a new wave of women's shelters and rape crisis centers across the U.S.

The 2000 version of VAWA also established the ‘T' and ‘U' visas, a federal program set up to protect and help immigrants who are forced to come to the United States against their will, as victims of sex-trafficking.

But are the all protective programs living up their promises?

In spite of VAWA's attempt to protect women at a federal level, the state sponsored Arizona SB1070 bill has placed women immigrants living inside the state of Arizona in a troubling ‘legal limbo' as they face quick deportation if they report any crime they see, including rape, murder or domestic violence.

“Although VAWA's intentions are laudable there is little in terms of actual legally binding federal provisions which provide substantive protection or prevention for acts of domestic violence against women,” said Ms. Rashida Manjoo (South Africa) UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women during a special fact-finding mission to the United States which was authorized by the United Nations in February 2011.

“He threatened to ‘ship' me back and revoke his application for my green card.”

A major provision under VAWA is the option for immigrant women to make a ‘self petition' for lawful immigration into the United States. This is now also available for any abused spouse or child, and even abused immigrant parents.

Once the self-petition is approved, the petitioner will more easily receive protections, including protection from deportation. They will also be qualified to work legally in the United States and will be able to receive many of the same government aid programs reserved for lawful permanent residents.

“We are asking everyone to play an active role in preventing and ending domestic violence, by stepping up to stop violence when they see it,” said Obama during his October National Domestic Violence Awareness Month Proclamation.

Problems remain though for many immigrant women in reporting violence to authorities across the U.S. Until a non-citizen has ‘legal' immigration status, they remain in danger of being deported at any time.