Analysis Violence

Nan-Hui Jo’s Case Shows How the System Fails Immigrant Abuse Survivors

Victoria Law

On April 28, a Korean immigrant and domestic abuse survivor named Nan-Hui Jo was sentenced to 175 days in jail and three years of probation after being convicted of misdemeanor child abduction. Now, she faces the threat of deportation and permanent separation from her daughter.

On April 28, Nan-Hui Jo was sentenced to 175 days in jail and three years of probation after being convicted of misdemeanor child abduction. Her crime? Taking her then 1-year-old daughter, Vitz Da, with her when she followed orders from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to leave the country in 2009. Although Nan-Hui Jo was released on time served after spending more than nine months in jail, she is currently still detained on an immigration hold. Furthermore, she continues to face the threat of deportation without having seen her daughter face-to-face in ten months.

Jo’s decision to return to Korea with her infant daughter, in part out of concern for her daughter’s well-being, brought a combination of the criminal justice, immigration, and family court systems crashing into her family’s lives. Involvement in any one of these systems increases the risk of losing the right to parent, either temporarily or permanently. Tangled together, they can present a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Nan-Hui Jo’s experience illustrates how immigrant abuse survivors are often failed—and sometimes re-victimized—by these various institutions despite the existence of legislation designed to protect them.

For Jo, and many other mothers, these agencies can threaten to tear apart their families as they risk permanent separation from their U.S.-born children. They also raise the reproductive justice question: Does not having permanent status in the United States, or taking actions that one believes to be in the best interest of one’s child that jeopardize one’s immigration status, warrant banishment from the child’s life?

Nan-Hui Jo’s Case

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In 2002, Nan-Hui Jo landed in Los Angeles on a student visa. While at the University of Southern California, she met and fell in love with a U.S. citizen. After returning to Korea to obtain a fiancé visa, Jo married and moved to Connecticut with this man. He began the paperwork for her green card. According to both Jo and her immigration attorneys, he also became abusive—physically assaulting her, isolating her from potential friends, and even taking her passport and keys to prevent her from leaving. At one point, the police issued a temporary restraining order against Jo’s husband. Jo separated from him, moved to Sacramento, and enrolled in Sacramento City College where, in 2007, she met Jesse Charlton, an Iraq war veteran.

In March 2008, not long after their relationship began, Jo told Charlton that she was pregnant with his child. “He wanted me to have an abortion,” she recounted when she testified during her first trial in December 2014. Jo, who had suffered a miscarriage 15 years earlier and been told that she would never be able to have a baby, says she refused. According to Jo, Charlton dumped her. Although the two reunited again a month later, they broke up a second time when Jo was seven months pregnant.

Charlton was not present for Vitz Da’s birth. He did not meet his daughter until he ran into Jo on campus three months later, a fact that both Charlton and Jo confirmed during her first trial. Soon afterwards, he began visiting mother and daughter at home.

“The baby’s father loved the baby, it seemed to me, and he seemed to be very remorseful about dumping me. So we decided to get together again,” Jo testified. But their relationship continued to be fraught with disputes, sometimes escalating to the point where Charlton would physically lash out. According to testimonies in December 2014 by both Jo and Charlton, Charlton once punched the wall near Jo. Another time, they both say, he hit the steering wheel of her car in anger before walking out, leaving his girlfriend and baby in the car. In a separate incident, according to Jo and Charlton, he grabbed her by the throat, lifted her off the ground, and slammed her against the wall. The police were called twice. Each time, they asked Charlton to remove himself from the immediate situation. No incident report was ever filed. By July 2009, the two had broken up a third time and were living separately.

Meanwhile, Jo’s green card application was slowly winding its way through the immigration process. A background check revealed the temporary restraining order she had taken out against her husband. Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), immigration officials should have informed her about resources for domestic violence and sexual assault as well as routes available to non-citizens with abusive spouses. In fact, under the 2005 Marriage Brokers Regulation Act, upon her arrival under a fiancé visa, Jo should have been given a pamphlet notifying her that domestic violence and abuse are illegal and outlining available resources for survivors. But Jo says she never received such a thing; thus, when she returned to the United States, she was given no information on what to do if her marriage became abusive.

Zachary Nightingale, who recently joined Jo’s immigration defense, explained in an interview with Rewire that after a background check, Jo should have been informed that, under VAWA, she qualified to self-petition for a green card rather than rely on her abusive spouse. And given that the abuse occurred in the United States at the hands of her spouse, ICE should have granted her a “prima facie” determination, which acknowledges that sufficient evidence may exist of the abuse. While the petition is being decided, the immigrant spouse is eligible for certain benefits, such as food stamps, medical insurance, and cash assistance. If ICE approved her petition, no deportation proceedings would have been initiated and Jo would have become a permanent resident.

But no one informed Jo of any of this, Jo’s lawyers say. Instead, her legal team says an ICE official placed a note in Jo’s file. It read, “In light of protective order, check to see if the marriage is still valid.” Immigration officials tracked down Jo’s estranged husband, who told them he no longer wished to sponsor her green card application. ICE denied her application.

In November 2009, Jo followed the letter’s orders and left the country. She took Vitz Da with her, in part because she was afraid of leaving the child with Charlton, on whom she’d had to call the police the week prior. After she returned to Korea, Charlton contacted the Yolo County Child Abduction Unit. He also emailed her nearly every day. In at least one, according to court documents, he threatened to send “a scary bounty hunter” after her.

In July 2014, Jo and Vitz Da, then age 6, returned to the United States, landing in Hawai’i. Jo was immediately arrested and charged with child abduction. She was also placed under an immigration hold, which required the jail to inform ICE before releasing Jo so that she could be taken from jail into immigrant detention. Charlton flew to Hawai’i to pick up Vitz. That fall, a family court judge granted him full custody rights. Given the charges against her, the judge ordered that Jo not be allowed visitation until her criminal kidnapping case had been concluded. “No one knew how long it would take for the criminal case to be sorted out,” explained John Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific and Jo’s family court attorney, to Rewire. But Jo, not wanting her daughter to visit her in jail or see her mother in jail clothes, did not challenge the judge’s ruling.

In December 2014, Nan-Hui Jo went to trial on charges of child abduction. The jury was unable to reach a verdict, resulting in a hung jury. Jo remained in jail.

After the trial, Myers filed a Request for Order in family court asking for Jo to be allowed to receive written letters from Vitz Da. The judge approved and, Myers noted, the father did not object. Since then, Jo has written three letters to her daughter and, in response, received one picture with some writing.

In February 2015, two months after the hung jury, the prosecutor retried the case. One juror recused herself, stating that she could not find Jo guilty of intentionally committing a wrongful act. After her recusal, the jury unanimously delivered a verdict of guilty. She was sentenced to 175 days time served and three years of probation on April 28.

Deportation Still a Danger

But Jo’s fight to stay in her daughter’s life is far from over. Even if a judge grants her supervised visitation through family court, the immigration system may still rupture her relationship with her daughter: Jo is currently in detention and faces deportation.

ICE officials could have decided to let Jo stay in the community while she awaits her day in immigration court. In fact, ICE’s Parental Interests Directive instructs agents to consider not unnecessarily disrupting parents’ ability to participate in family court proceedings when deciding whether to detain a person. For now, however, ICE seems to be ignoring the directive: Minutes after her sentencing hearing ended, ICE took Jo into custody, where she remains. Jo, who has belatedly been informed of domestic violence resources available to immigrants, has filed for a VAWA cancellation of removal, which allows an immigration judge to cancel deportation proceedings against an abused immigrant and grant her permanent residency.

But while Jo’s case illustrates the tangled web of domestic violence, criminal justice, immigration, and family court, her story is not unique—or even uncommon. “There are thousands of people who apply [for relief] under VAWA laws, so that tells us there are probably many more who don’t,” Nightingale pointed out. The VAWA Cancellation of Removal can only be applied to people who are facing deportation, a category of people who now include Jo. If the system had worked according to the various laws passed since VAWA in 1994, though, Jo would have been informed of available resources for domestic violence survivors long before deportation ever crossed anyone’s mind—from the minute she stepped off the plane and went through customs that first time in California.

She would have been reminded of these resources when ICE officials discovered the temporary restraining order she had filed against her husband. Rather than allowing her husband to withdraw his petition for her green card, ICE officials would have reminded Jo that she could petition for herself. Then, after she and Charlton had split up, she could have applied for public benefits and gotten a work permit to support herself and her daughter. What would have come in the mail could have been her paycheck rather than an order to leave the country. While she and Charlton might still have conflicts about Vitz Da and his ability to be safely involved in their lives, her immigration status would not affect her actions. Nan-Hui Jo could now be attending PTA meetings and chaperoning Vitz Da’s class trips instead of hoping that a family court judge will allow her supervised visitation at her hearing on May 11.

But the system doesn’t work perfectly. In fact, it doesn’t even work the way that it’s legislated to. And so, Jo’s next immigration hearing will be in August 2015. But that isn’t her day in court—it’s merely a five-minute scheduling hearing in which Jo and Nightingale will ask the judge to schedule an individual hearing so that she can present her testimony and evidence.

“As long as we can tie her action [of taking her child out of the country] back to the abuse, she qualifies for a VAWA cancellation,” Nightingale said. But, he cautions, immigration courts are backlogged, so her hearing will most likely be scheduled at some even further future date.

What is exceptional, however, is the amount of public attention and support that Jo has received. “For people who have very complicated cases, what frequently happens is that they happen without a sound and no one hears about it,” said Hyejin Shim of the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse (KACEDA).

But in Jo’s case, people did hear about her. No one is sure how word originally got out, but once it did, it spread. Spearheaded by Misun Yi, a woman whom Jo briefly met when she first arrived in Sacramento, the area’s Korean community began rallying to support Jo as a Korean woman and domestic violence survivor. They held fundraisers for her legal defense at their churches. They attended each day of her trials. “A lot of the people don’t really speak English, but sat through the day [in a show of support],” Shim recalled.

At the same time, younger queer Koreans and other Asians, some of whom work in advocacy against domestic violence, formed the Stand with Nan-Hui Campaign, urging people to call and tweet at ICE demanding that they follow their own directive and release Jo while she awaits her immigration hearings. They’re also fundraising so that, if ICE relents and allows her out on bail, the money will be ready.

While Jo’s story was the starting point for the campaign, though it isn’t solely about her. Members of the campaign are also using her case to further awareness about the intersections of domestic violence, immigration, and law enforcement. Shim, who works at the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco, pointed out that the combination of domestic and state violence frequently isolate people, preventing them from learning about or accessing resources that would enable them to escape.

The combination, for many other immigrant mothers like Jo, can also mean losing their children. Separately, either imprisonment or deportation affects Nan-Hui Jo’s chances to play a meaningful role in Vitz Da’s life. Together, they might mean a lifetime of banishment from her daughter.

Analysis Human Rights

The Troubling Case of a ‘Fortunate’ Immigrant Seeking Asylum

Tina Vasquez

To her immigration attorney, Nicole Ramos, M’s case is troubling because like many of her clients, M did exactly what she was supposed to do in accordance with U.S. law. But still, her rights were trampled on.

“M” is deeply familiar with the brutal nature of the U.S. immigration system. After waiting in line for more than 30 hours at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to enter the United States from Tijuana, and being held at an immigration facility for almost two weeks, she was released from San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center on April 11.

To her immigration attorney, Nicole Ramos, M’s case is troubling because like many of her clients, M did exactly what she was supposed to do in accordance with U.S. law. But still, Ramos noted, her rights were trampled on.

M, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, is considered one of the “lucky ones” (when compared to other immigrants’ cases) for having an attorney who can advocate on her behalf. But even having an attorney couldn’t protect her from inappropriate and abusive behavior that her legal advocates say she experienced while attempting to return to the United States, where she had lived for over two and a half decades before leaving for Mexico to visit a fatally ill parent.

M’s case echoes findings in a new Human Rights Watch report about trans women in detention that suggested the U.S. immigration system often further traumatizes an already vulnerable population.

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Multiple Traumas

Though Rewire was unable to speak to M directly, her attorney explained in an interview last month that M was smuggled by traffickers into the United States from Mexico 25 years ago. As a transgender teenager, M was the victim of multiple sexual assaults, but she was able to escape her traffickers and build a life in San Diego and, eventually, in Los Angeles.

According to Ramos, M received word last year from relatives in Mexico that her mother was gravely ill and dying. Despite being undocumented and unsure of how she would return to the United States, M sold her belongings to pay for her trip to say goodbye to her mother.

M knew it would be a difficult trip, her attorney explained to Rewire, but what she didn’t anticipate was the response from her own family concerning her gender identity. M’s appearance had changed a great deal during her years in the United States, something her family and those in the local community did not respond well to. According to Ramos, M was “pretty much chased out of town.”

“It was not a safe environment for her,” Ramos, who is based in Tijuana, told Rewire. M’s family “basically disowned her, with some family members becoming physically aggressive toward her. She tried to stay at a niece’s and later at a sister’s, but M began receiving threats from men in the area who were known in the neighborhood for targeting members of the LGBTQ community, and trans women in particular.”

To escape from her relatives after an unexpectedly short visit, M left her mother’s town in the middle of the night, hiding under a blanket in a borrowed truck, according to Ramos. A family member drove her to the nearest bus station so M could take a bus to Tijuana.

While staying in Tijuana, M faced more violence and transphobia, Ramos told Rewire. She was repeatedly turned down for housing, she was verbally abused by a therapist from whom she sought treatment, and she was threatened with assault by a bus driver.

“She was in Mexico since last May and she came to me for help at the end of December because it just became too much for her,” Ramos said. “Every time she left her house, she was harassed or threatened. Her bus driver threatening her was the last straw.”

Ramos agreed to help M apply for asylum status in the United States, which would allow her to stay in the country until her claim could be fully evaluated by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, since she would potentially face persecution should she return to her country of origin.

There are two ways to request asylum: Migrants can apply within a year of being in the United States, though one in five fail to file their application within that timeframe due to language barriers or lack of legal information or resources, among other reasons. Failure to do so puts them at risk for deportation. For those outside the United States, migrants fleeing violence can present themselves at the border or a port of entry and request asylum. There are more than 300 land, air, and sea ports where people and goods can enter the country, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

However, there are many challenges to getting an asylum claim approved. For asylum seekers whose claims aren’t deemed legitimate, because for example, they can’t prove their identity, they are deported. But even if the process goes smoothly, an asylum seeker will spend an average of 111 days in a detention center. After a “credible fear” interview with an asylum officer, in which they share personal details about their case and why they will be in danger if they are forced to return to their country of origin, they will be held in detention while they await their hearing in immigration court.

Parole” can be requested, allowing the asylum seeker to avoid a detention center stay, but only if they can verify their identify; if they have family or other contacts in the area; and if they can post a bond, which ranges from $1,500 to $10,000, depending on various factors.

Before accompanying her to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where M would present herself and request asylum, Ramos explained all of this to M, as she explains it to all of her clients. What Ramos couldn’t prepare M for, she said, was the verbal abuse from CBP officers and their refusal to provide M with food for more than 30 hours. Upon being presented with a letter from Ramos that detailed M’s disabilities and special needs, a CBP officer at the port told M she “wasted her money on an attorney” and that “the letter doesn’t mean shit,” Ramos explained to Rewire.

“I highlighted [in her letter] that [M] has mental health issues, cognitive disabilities; that she has a seizure disorder. She is entitled to special protections because of her mental health issues. I made all of this known, according to [CBP’s] policies, but none of that mattered,” said Ramos: M was still met with disdain and verbal abuse by CBP officers.

M’s experience at the port led Ramos to contact Mitra Ebadolahi, staff attorney of the San Diego ACLU’s Border Litigation Project, which works to “document, investigate, and litigate” human and civil rights abuses in an effort to hold CBP more accountable.

In a complaint filed by the Border Litigation Project to CBP on March 23, Ebadolahi outlined the “unprofessional and abusive comments made” by an officer to M and how officers did not offer M food for 34 hours while she waited in line for processing, something the staff attorney said is unconstitutional and a violation of CBP’s own policies.

Ebadolahi wrote that asylum seekers must wait in line to present their claims for many hours—and sometimes even days. However, a CBP supervisor had assured Ramos that “CBP officers fed individuals awaiting asylum processing three times per day.”

Ramos visited M nearly 24 hours after she had escorted her to the port of entry. She spoke to port staff again about why her client wasn’t being fed and received different responses. One officer said it was M’s own responsibility to bring food to the port. Later in the day, a CBP supervisor named Chief Knox told Ramos that CBP “was not obligated to feed people on the Mexican side,” which Ebadolahi wrote is a “nonsensical” statement “given the fact that CBP officers line up asylum seekers awaiting processing in the U.S.-controlled area of the port.”

This conflicting information indicates CBP officers are not properly trained, wrote Ebadolahi, “or worse—that there is an intentional practice of obfuscating what is required of the agency so that members of the public are confused and can’t assert their rights. Either one of those things is unacceptable.”

This is not the first time the ACLU has filed a complaint against CBP. In 2012, the ACLU Southern Border Affiliates, along with other ACLU programs, demanded a federal investigation into abuse allegations of individuals, including U.S. citizens and legal residents, by CBP agents at ports of entry along the United States-Mexico border. The complaint highlighted 11 cases in which CBP appeared to disregard the civil and human rights of individuals crossing the border in violation of the U.S. Constitution, international law, and agency guidelines. Ebadolahi told Rewire no investigation has taken place.

San Diego’s ACLU Border Litigation Project also hasn’t received a response from local CBP authorities regarding the complaint they filed on behalf of M. The organization is now working on escalating the complaint to national CBP authorities.

In a statement to Rewire post-publication, a CBP spokesperson said that the federal agency “intends to respond to the ACLU this week.” The spokesperson added: “CBP is committed to providing appropriate care for those in our custody, and takes allegations that we have not met those standards of care seriously.”

Ramos has accompanied multiple clients to the port and each time, she said, she has been shocked by the behavior of CBP officers and what appears to be either a complete lack of understanding of laws and regulations, or outright attempts to dissuade migrants from seeking asylum. Once, while helping an unaccompanied minor fleeing violence in Central America, Ramos said an officer was incredulous that the child was presenting himself as an asylum seeker, saying, “You don’t apply for asylum here.” But asylum seekers can present themselves at the border or ports of entry and request a credible fear interview.

M had her paperwork in order, had an attorney, and lawfully presented herself at the port to request asylum. Still, CBP officials violated her rights, according to her attorney.

One of the “Fortunate” Ones

After 34 hours of waiting to be processed, M was then held in San Ysidro in CBP custody for three days. While there, Ramos said M was subjected to verbal abuse from officers who mocked her transgender identity, with one officer passing her cell and saying, “What’s the story with this one,” according to M’s attorney. Eventually, M was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, where M says the trauma continued, explained Ramos.

M was held in a cell with men for 12 hours as she was processed into Otay Mesa, with one detainee staring at her aggressively for the entire 12 hours, according to her attorney. After processing, M was placed in medical isolation for reasons Ramos said she could not share out of respect for M’s privacy. Later, M was brought into the shower area with men. Though she was given her own private stall, male detainees showered nearby, Ramos said.

“She began experiencing flashbacks and felt like she was going to be raped again,” Ramos said. “She felt helpless because the officers were not taking her concerns seriously. It was incredibly traumatizing.”

Ramos’ biggest concern was that once released from medical isolation, M would be placed with men in detention.

“I made numerous pleas to ICE via email and via telephone saying this woman cannot be placed with men. She’s the survivor of multiple sexual assaults at the hands of men because she’s transgender,” Ramos told Rewire. “I literally said, ‘Please give me assurance that she will not be placed with men.’”

An employee at Otay Mesa told Ramos the facility doesn’t have a unit for transgender people, which ICE confirmed in an email statement to Rewire, so once out of isolation, if she wasn’t released from detention, M would be placed with male detainees or in “protective custody.” According to Solitary Watch, involuntary protective custody is “especially common” for LGBTQ individuals and other “at-risk prisoners who live in indefinite isolation despite having done nothing wrong.”

And yet, according to ICE’s own policies, detaining trans women with men should not be a standard practice. In July 2015, ICE released the Transgender Care Memorandum, new guidelines pertaining to transgender detainees in detention, including how officials should assign individuals to facilities based on their gender identity. But Ramos has heard from a trans woman in Otay Mesa that trans women are still detained alongside men.

“It doesn’t appear ICE’s new policies are being followed,” Ramos said. “When I called the facility and spoke with a supervisor, he explained that if [M] still has male genitalia, then she will be placed with male detainees and any special, protective custody would have to come through ICE. Trans detainees shouldn’t have to choose between going into protective custody and being on lockdown for 23 hours a day or being placed in a shark’s tank.”

Human Rights Watch’s report, Do You See How Much I’m Suffering Here?: Abuse Against Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention, sheds light on how M’s experience is not unusual for undocumented transgender immigrants. Based on 28 interviews with transgender women held or being held in U.S. immigration detention between 2011 and 2015, the report details the abuses that transgender women suffer in immigration detention and the U.S. government’s inadequate efforts to address this abuse.

According to the report, it appears as if ICE isn’t prioritizing the needs of trans women in detention despite the fact that, by its own count, there are approximately 65 transgender women in its custody on any given day.

From the report:

In early 2016, the US government appeared to move away from holding transgender women in men’s facilities and began transferring many of them to a segregated unit at the Santa Ana City Jail that exclusively houses transgender women. However, at time of writing, ICE officials were unable to state whether the agency had abandoned the practice of housing transgender women with men, and they had not announced any concrete plans to do so. Under ICE policy, immigration officials may still elect to house transgender women in men’s facilities—placing them at exceptionally high risk of sexual assault and other kinds of trauma and abuse. Others may be kept indefinitely in conditions of isolation simply because authorities cannot or will not devise any safe and humane way to keep them in detention.

Even within the segregated detention unit, trans women are not safe, according to the report. Several who were detained inside Santa Ana City Jail told Human Rights Watch that they were “regularly subjected to humiliating and abusive strip searches by male guards; have not been able to access necessary medical services, including hormone replacement therapy, or have faced harmful interruptions to or restrictions to that care; and have endured unreasonable use of solitary confinement.”

Ebadolahi told Rewire current U.S. immigration policies only subject traumatized, vulnerable asylum seekers to more trauma—and M is one of the more “fortunate” ones. After successfully passing her credible fear interview, M was released from detention on April 11.

“We’re talking about a transgender woman who is a survivor of multiple rapes, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, who has disabilities, including a seizure disorder, who has gone through a lifetime of hurt, and for who the simple act of appearing at the port of entry and applying for asylum took an enormous effort—and despite all of these things, she is considered one of the fortunate ones because she has a pro-bono lawyer working on her behalf,” Ebadolahi said.

“How M and her attorney were treated at the port of entry and … in detention, is unconstitutional, unethical, and outrageous. We shouldn’t tolerate it. This treatment serves absolutely no legitimate, government purpose and only serves to further traumatize and marginalize very vulnerable people. No one should be subject to this kind of abuse. This has to stop.”

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include a statement from CBP’s spokesperson.

Analysis Violence

Do U.S. Laws Protecting Abuse Survivors Help Only Women Who Are U.S. Citizens?

Tina Vasquez

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger.

After graduating from college in Mexico, Gina was raped by a man. Her rapist was never arrested, but she was held by the police for “defamation” after reporting the crime. Gina had no support from her family and upon her release, she was unable to find work in Mexico. At 28, she made the difficult decision to uproot the only life she knew to come to the United States.

“I decided to come here to find my ‘American dream,’ but it turned into a nightmare when I attempted to cross the border,” Gina said, referring to U.S. immigration policies that have made seeking help as an undocumented survivor of violence a “difficult, painful process.”

The United Nations General Assembly has designated November 25 as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—violence that afflicts 70 percent of women in their lifetime, with one in three women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger.

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The United States has taken a strong stance over the years in response to violence against women. September of 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and last year during October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, President Obama committed to “reaching a future free of domestic violence.”

Initially, undocumented women experiencing violence were not protected under VAWA. After a long legal battle, however, VAWA was extended in 2013 to include undocumented women. But VAWA is helpful only if the victim of domestic violence is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. According to the Department of Homeland Security, if you are abused by a citizen or permanent resident, you may be eligible to apply for a green card without needing the abuser to file for immigration benefits. Also, a paper trail must exist and victims must establish they have or had a qualifying relationship with the abuser spouse or are the parent or child of the abuser; reside or resided with the abuser; “have good moral character”; and have been victims of battery or extreme cruelty.

Forty-eight percent of Latinas report their partner’s violence against them increases upon immigrating to the United States, according to Cristina Aguilar, executive director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR). These are the many women not protected by laws like VAWA. For this, and many other reasons, women like Gina are becoming their own advocates, joining grassroots organizations like COLOR to work directly in their communities and educate women about their rights, including their ability to obtain U-Visas if they or their children are experiencing violence. U-Visas are for victims of crimes (and their immediate family members) who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.

The work of women like Gina is crucial because for the estimated five million undocumented women in the United States, the fear of deportation or incarceration is real and navigating the system as an abuse survivor only compounds those fears.

We Belong Together, a campaign to “mobilize women in support of common sense immigration policies that will keep families together and empower women,” has conducted extensive research on the many ways immigration policies make an already vulnerable populationundocumented women—more susceptible to violence, abuse, and exploitation. An entire economy has been created from jailing asylum-seeking women and their infants and toddlers, most of whom have experienced gender-based violence.

Furthermore, as history shows us, undocumented women can face prolonged incarceration and deportation for contacting police to report abuse in their homes. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested Maria Calderon after she asked the Tucson police for help because her husband was beating her again. When a neighbor called the police after a domestic dispute in her home turned physical, Claudia Valdez was arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to deportation proceedings. When she escaped an abusive relationship with her daughter, Nan-Hui Jo was arrested and held without bail for nine months and then detained by ICE and subject to deportation proceedings.

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said, stories such as these teach undocumented women not to contact the authorities even during dire situations.

Undocumented women in the United States also can become tethered to abusive partners because of employment visas. Only a quarter of all employment visas are given to women as principal holders, according to We Belong Together, which means that most immigrant women in the employment visa category are dependents on their spouse’s visa, with no authorization to work themselves, making them more vulnerable to an abusive partner.

“This is even a greater threat when there are children involved, because the abusers take advantage of the lack of documentation to inflict violence and threaten to take away our children,” Gina said. “This and many other reasons are why undocumented women are a thousand times more vulnerable to living in violent situation and not reporting them.”

Karina Alonso, a 43-year-old undocumented mother of two, shared similar sentiments with Rewire. Alonso immigrated to Denver, Colorado, with her young son in tow, wanting to raise her child with her husband. Growing up in an abusive home, she recognized the signs in her own marriage. After suffering years of emotional and psychological abuse, Alonso asked her husband for a divorce.

“My husband grabbed a knife and put in on his chest, saying that if I wanted a separation, he would kill himself,” Alonso said.

When things got worse and her husband began stalking her and threatening to “destroy” her, Alonso said she was afraid to ask for help or approach a police officer because of her citizenship status. Above all else, she feared being separated from her children.

“We are afraid our husbands will get more violent if we report the violence,” Alonso said. “In my case, he was also saying that he will make me to go to jail or get deported if I wanted to divorce.”

Stories like Alonso’s are sadly common, explained Aguilar. The executive director said immigrant women might feel that they cannot leave a violent relationship because of immigration laws, language barriers, social isolation, and lack of financial resources.

“Too often immigrant and undocumented women and our families have been scared into silence. The issues of domestic and sexual violence are already shrouded in shame and secrecy. It is that much worse for women who feel isolated and scared to seek help from the authorities, because they fear being separated from their families,” Aguilar said.

Undocumented women also carry the burden of the deportation of men. According to findings from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 93 percent of ICE deportees were men in fiscal year 2013. When the head of their household gets deported, women are left as sole providers for their families, often working in the informal economy as domestic workers or caregivers. Given that a central tenet for comprehensive immigration reform has been employment—employment in specific fields or proof of employment—We Belong Together reports that a pathway to citizenship requiring proof of employment would exclude millions of women. A survey of over 4,000 low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that workers in occupations with high percentages of women did not receive pay stubs with their pay, including 98 percent of surveyed undocumented nannies, 92 percent of maids and housecleaners, and 77 percent of garment workers.

When violence against women is discussed in the United States, advocates say that immigrant and undocumented women are rarely included in those conversations. Gina said that part of the reason accessing care can be so challenging is because many advocacy groups don’t have a basic understanding of the hurdles undocumented women face.

“I think that still there is a lot work to do. I can see ads in the TV, radio, or the media [about abuse], but they’re distant to me,” Alonso said.

Gina added, “They always ask you, ‘Why don’t you call the police? Why don’t you report your husband if he hit you?’ The answer is very simple: Because I am afraid. Afraid that they might ask me for my papers, afraid that I’ll be accused of being the violent one, afraid of being deported and having my children taken away from me.” 

Also, the importance of culturally and linguistically competent care can’t be overstated, they stated. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at its best, culturally competent care should advance health equity, improve quality, and help eliminate disparities. Aguilar said there are groups providing these services, including Mujeres Latinas en Acción, an organization out of Chicago that works to provide culturally competent services to Latinas. Too many support and service programs working with survivors do not have bilingual shelters or hotlines, though. Court advocate programs may not have an interpreter available, Aguilar added, and even a woman calling 9-1-1 may encounter language barriers.

Gina told Rewire most agencies don’t have a staff that is bicultural or bilingual and for women like her, that is a major problem.

“As a Mexican woman, for example, I was raised in a culture completely different from the culture of an American woman,” she said, “and it is going to be very difficult for a social worker to understand my roots and why it took me so long to report the violence or that I was so afraid of the police investigating my family.”

As Aguilar said, any program that is providing care to survivors should have a sense of the community and the different cultures represented. They should also have contacts for interpreters for people whose first language is not English. Primarily, it’s important that those enlisted to help truly understand the community they are serving.

“We need people who can understand our experiences,” Aguilar said.

“Women who are not immigrants, for the most part, do not understand the immigration system,” Gina said. “A simple phone call to the police or a traffic ticket can put you at risk of deportation.”

This was echoed by Alonso, who told Rewire that not knowing her rights, not knowing the language, not having money to pay for legal assistance, and not having traditional access to the help for victims of domestic violence made her feel like she didn’t know where to start.

“In the community, many good resources exist, the problem is that people don’t know where to go or who to call when violence has been inflicted on them,” Gina said. “The problem resides in that when we are victims of violence, we are afraid of everything and we do not know what to do.”