American Nightmare

They fear their husbands, but fear deportation more, leaving abused immigrant women with little hope.


When Nancy came to the United States from Ghana at age 25, she never imagined she’d end up under someone else’s control. A high-school teacher in her home country, she had married a United Nations worker and had his child. The couple had adopted five more kids from impoverished villages, whom her husband brought to the city for better educations. But when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack, the young widow was left to support all six. “Life was very hard for me,” Nancy recalls. “I heard that the United States was a better place, the land of opportunity, so I decided to come here and better my life.” Leaving the children with her mother, she came to the East Bay on her own. The only person she knew here was an uncle, who helped her get a job as a home nursing aide for an elderly woman. She sent all of her wages home for her children. Nancy was nurturing, and soon drew the attention of one of the lady’s friends, a man in his seventies. He would stop by the house several times a day to chat or help out; he helped manage the bills and would drive Nancy to the grocery store. Sometimes he’d treat her to a restaurant meal on the way home. The man praised her often, saying she was a nice person and that he appreciated the care she took of his friend. Eventually he approached her uncle, saying he hoped to marry Nancy. At first, she resisted — she was new to the United States, and the idea of being with a much older white man made her nervous. Besides, she felt she didn’t know the man or his family well enough. “In Ghana, we live in a community — before you marry somebody you know the person’s mother and father and even their grandparents,” she explains. “You know the good and the bad.” And in Ghanaian culture, divorce is not an option. “You marry for the rest of your life,” she says.

For five or six months, Nancy’s admirer continued to press her and her uncle about marriage. She grew to trust him and consider him her “best friend.” Ultimately, she agreed to the proposal. “He told me he’d treat me good, he had his own house, a place for me to live, and I thought, ‘Why not?'”

She soon found out. After the first month of living together, Nancy discovered that her new husband wasn’t the man she thought she’d married: “All he wanted me to do is just stay home.” To her, it seemed as though he had married primarily because he wanted a caretaker for himself and his mother, who was in her nineties. He demanded she quit her job and stop going to nursing school, and when she refused, he made it difficult for her to continue either pursuit, sometimes physically barring her from the door. Although she would routinely get back from work after midnight, he would never pick her up from the bus stop, or even give her the keys to the house so she could let herself inside — she had to walk home alone and knock to get in. He also tried to prevent her from taking driving lessons, convinced she would go off on her own.

For two years, her husband’s controlling behavior kept Nancy isolated and dependent upon him. He forbade her to speak her native tongue, Ashanti, on the phone because he feared she might be talking about him. He would hang up on anyone who called her, even her parents in Ghana, or simply pretend she was not at home. He denied her access to the couple’s joint checking account — once when Nancy withdrew $20 from the ATM he made her pay it back to him. He didn’t let her cook African food in the house because he said it stank. He also was verbally abusive, she says, calling her a “black nigger” and insulting her culture. “You African, why did you leave? Do you live in trees? Do you have roads?” she recalls him saying. “You don’t even have food to eat!”

But besides Nancy’s cultural aversion to divorce, something else kept her tethered to her husband: her immigration status. Nancy was in the country illegally, and didn’t have a valid work permit or other documentation. Her marriage to an American citizen made her eligible for a green card, which would give her lawful permanent resident status. This process can span many years, however, and must be initiated by the American half of the couple, who must cooperate fully by filing paperwork and attending interviews on behalf of the noncitizen spouse. Nancy’s husband had begun filing her paperwork, but the process was far from complete, and he made sure she knew it. “He said if I don’t go along with him he will let them take me back to Africa, and it’s because of him that I’m still here,” she recalls. He also told her that if she was pulled over while driving, the police could have her immediately deported because of her lack of papers. He went so far as to sabotage her green card process, hiding mail sent by the immigration authorities so that she missed a crucial interview.

On two occasions, the situation at home grew so untenable that Nancy went to a police station to file a complaint and then chickened out at the last moment, afraid that her immigration status would be used against her. Finally, on the day her husband threw all of her belongings onto the porch and locked her out, Nancy felt she had no choice. She called the cops, and with the assistance of one of her college instructors who noticed her crying in class, sought help at the International Institute of the East Bay, an Oakland nonprofit that assists immigrants and refugees. To her surprise, Nancy was told that abused immigrant women have the right to petition for their own residency, independent of their abusive spouses, thanks to a relatively recent law called the Violence Against Women Act. It’s not an easy process, however, and it’s still evolving as legal advocates begin to address the unique powerlessness of battered immigrant women.

What’s more, the law is set to expire this fall unless reauthorized by Congress, even as women’s-rights advocates push for reforms that will make it a more useful protective tool. Immigration law is imperfect and complicated, and often very tough to navigate for the hundreds of battered immigrant women living in the East Bay. Many have no idea that the physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse wrought by their spouses is illegal, or that there is any way to stop it. They are wary of the authorities, financially dependent on their abusers, and fear deportation if they come forward; two of the women interviewed for this story asked that only their first names be printed, while Nancy insisted on a pseudonym even for her first name. Because of their fear and lack of information, these women tend to remain invisible to authorities and service providers, enduring abuse for years until they turn up in desperate need of help, too bruised and bloodied to ignore. Or, like Nancy, they go to the police because they have nowhere else to go.

Domestic violence is not uncommon in the East Bay. In 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, the state’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center logged 6,491 domestic-violence-related police calls in Alameda County and 4,290 in Contra Costa County. Women’s advocates believe the number of official reports is artificially low because so many abused women are afraid or embarrassed to report their situation to law enforcement. As one measure of the disparity, STAND! Against Domestic Violence, the only shelter provider in Contra Costa County, estimates that it serves 13,000 individual clients a year.

Providers of women’s services believe that immigrants are even less likely to report domestic violence. East Bay nonprofits that specialize in helping battered immigrant women say they’re seeing only a fraction of those needing help, and still their client rosters are overflowing. Bay Area Legal Aid had about 250 such cases last year; the International Institute is currently maxed out at 70 active cases, and provides consultations to as many as 200 others annually; and Catholic Charities of the East Bay gets two to three calls a week for help, which adds another 100 or 150 potential cases a year to the count. Some women may turn to smaller nonprofit law clinics, and a few may be able to hire private lawyers, but the majority, it is believed, are left to suffer alone.

These women don’t fit neatly into any demographic profile. They can be of any age, race, or religion, previously married or not, childless or not. And while they do tend to come from moderately poor backgrounds, some are highly educated, with professional careers in their home countries. For the most part, East Bay agencies are seeing women from Latin America and Asia, but have been getting more and more cases from the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

There’s some evidence to suggest that immigrant women are abused at a higher rate than American-born women, and it is widely accepted that they have fewer resources to escape abusive situations. “Because immigrants tend to not know the society well and are isolated when they first come, if she falls into an abusive relationship, he often manipulates that vulnerability and that isolation in order to keep her really imprisoned in the relationship,” says Naomi Onaga, staff attorney with the International Institute. “He often prevents her from learning English, prevents her from working, prevents her from having any friends, prevents her from calling her family.”

This ball and chain of domestic control can make the victim, who often is already worn down by repeated physical violence, entirely dependent on her abuser. Local immigrants’-rights advocates relate stories of women who are forced to sign over the deeds to their homes, allowed to use the phone only if the man is listening in, beaten for speaking to other men, made to wear loose-fitting clothes to prevent other men from looking at them, and in some cases literally imprisoned in their homes — or even in a single room. Onaga recalls one case in which a woman was not even allowed to speak to her in-laws, who shared the home, and got in trouble for breaking her silence to ask where the can opener was. “I had this one client where all she did was look out the window,” Onaga says. “Imagine that as a life.”

It takes time to become a lawful permanent United States resident under the best of circumstances; women marrying from abroad generally expect to be financially dependent on their resident husbands for a while. Those who marry Americans typically wait about eighteen months for a green card — if the spouse is a permanent resident, but not a citizen, getting a green card can take four to seven years. In abusive relationships, however, many husbands will stall, sabotage, or refuse to initiate the green card process, or simply threaten to do these things in order to control their wives. Sometimes the men purposely file papers incorrectly, or fail to show up for interviews. They threaten to tell immigration caseworkers that they don’t really live with their wives, or that they sleep in separate beds — both of which raise red flags. They prevent their wives from establishing proof of residency by keeping the women’s names off bills, bank accounts, and property titles. And because the women often don’t know they have the right to apply for residency independent of their husbands, this subterfuge can continue indefinitely.

Despite the abuses, many women are reluctant to seek help. “So many communities we work with have an inherent distrust of the police because they’ve been abused by them throughout history, either in their hometown or in low-income communities here,” says Shawn Roberts, who coordinates Bay Area Legal Aid’s domestic violence restraining-order efforts in central and eastern Contra Costa County. “Sometimes they’re afraid that if the police get involved it will put their primary breadwinner into deportation proceedings, or possibly take the father their children love away.” (Abusers who are lawful permanent residents can still be deported if they commit any of a long list of offenses.) Or, Roberts adds, “They may be depending on that person for their income, and he could lose his job if he spends any time in jail. I’ve seen cases where women think it will just make him angrier and she’ll be in more danger.”

Fear of deportation is another tool used for subjugation. “He tells her that ‘If you call the police, they will deport you,'” Onaga says. “He tells her that ‘If you try to divorce me, you’re never going to get the kids, because they’re not going to give the kids to an immigrant’ — which is not true; that is not the law. He tells her, ‘If you leave me, you’re going to starve, because you are not going to be able to get a job; no one’s going to want to hire you. ‘”

Women here illegally know that if they get deported, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to return or reunite with their US-born children. If they flee the country with their kids, they know their husbands can travel overseas to find them, and possibly take the kids back to the States where the wives cannot follow. And no matter how few rights immigrant women believe they have here, they may have even fewer in their native countries.

So once the abuse begins, many are simply trapped.


Jackie married her high-school sweetheart. That was as close as the relationship ever came to the American dream.

She’d come to the United States from Mexico illegally, one of nine children in a family whose father had abused the mother physically and emotionally for 26 years. An older brother arrived here after graduating from college, and smuggled his siblings and mother one at a time across the border.

Jackie came over last. She was fourteen and spoke no English, but quickly set about making the best of a new situation. Although the family lived in Oakland, she got herself transferred to Berkeley High School because she thought the teachers were better there. She took English classes at Laney College and, with the help of a manager who fudged her immigration status, got a job at Jack in the Box.

She met her future husband in high school. He was Mexican American, born in the United States. Despite his bad Spanish, her family approved of him and the couple’s future looked bright: He worked two jobs to save money, and they got engaged their senior year. Jackie’s home life was uncomfortable, however; she frequently got into physical fights with one of her sisters, and after a particularly vicious brawl she and her boyfriend decided to move into their own place. They rented an apartment in Fruitvale, and Jackie became pregnant with their first daughter. After the birth, the couple got married and Jackie’s husband submitted papers to begin her green card process.

Things soon began to slide. Jackie’s husband lost his jobs, so she began working while he stayed home with the baby. She got pregnant again — another daughter. For the next few years, Jackie’s husband got little work. She, meanwhile, was employed six days a week, tending bar at a restaurant and working at a tuxedo shop. Tensions rose between them. Jackie resented that he always seemed to be relaxing; he felt she was never fun anymore. She carefully saved her wages, and was delighted when one of her regular bar clients who was moving out of state offered to let her take over the mortgage on his house. She began making the house payments, but was shocked when her checks bounced. Jackie discovered, to her dismay, that her husband had secretly been withdrawing hundreds of dollars at a time from her bank account. Then bills stopped getting paid, and PG&E cut off their power. Things seemed to reach a financial low point when her husband let his brother move in without consulting her, giving her another mouth to feed, then sank lower still when one of Jackie’s friends caught her husband out with another woman.

Finally, Jackie asked for a divorce. Her husband refused, saying that he would take their daughters away and call the immigration police on her. “I got really scared, but at the same time something in me said, ‘No, you can go to hell — if you want to call the cops on me, call them,'” she remembers. In the ensuing fight, Jackie threw a TV remote at her husband, and he tried to hit her. It was the first time their relationship had gotten physically violent. In the end, she called the cops, and her husband was arrested.

From then on, the violence was constant. “Every chance he gets he will try to find a way to hit me,” she recalls. “I thought he was on drugs because the way he was acting was not normal. He used to come home and grab me on my shoulder or push me away. He had a lot of anger.”

Jackie endured the battering for a year. Unlike many immigrant women, she had family living nearby, but didn’t want to ask them for help. She also was afraid that one of her brothers, who had a violent temper himself, would confront her husband. She had grown up witnessing domestic violence, and didn’t want her daughters to suffer the same fate, so instead she tried to avoid conflict. “I’d try to walk away from it,” she says. “If he was in the house, I would take the babies and try to find a way to stay with them.”

She knew it was time to leave, however, when her husband started a fight in the parking lot of the restaurant where she worked. It was a scary scene — the cops and the restaurant’s management soon filled the parking lot — and worse, her two little girls saw the whole thing. That night, she took her daughters and left for her sister’s house with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Separating was a difficult process, made more complicated by Jackie’s undocumented status. The first lawyer she talked to wanted $4,000 just to initiate her case. Ultimately she approached the International Institute of the East Bay, where she was advised to delay her divorce filing in order to maintain her residency rights. Indeed, her husband promptly attempted to sabotage her green-card process by falsely telling Jackie’s caseworker that she’d returned to Mexico and didn’t need her papers anymore. Luckily, the worker double-checked the story, and Jackie was able to prove, using her pay stubs, that she’d been here continuously. A friend also let it slip that, in an effort to get sole custody of the girls, her husband was considering telling immigration authorities that she was a prostitute.

Jackie started her Violence Against Women Act self-petition process in 2000, and, although she didn’t doubt her virtues as a parent — “I never did anything wrong. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t go out. I feel that when you have kids you have a commitment” — the long process left her vulnerable to her husband’s incessant deportation threats. “It seemed to me like it took forever,” she recalls. “They told me I’d become a resident in 2001, and it didn’t happen until 2004.”

During that time, she says, her husband frequently threatened to tell the authorities that she was not a fit parent because she was working two jobs and, he alleged, had a new boyfriend. He broke into her house twice — once to steal the stereo, her CDs, and her underwear, and once to steal her car keys so that he could drive away with her ’95 Thunderbird. He continued to withdraw money from her bank account and make charges on her credit cards until she changed her account information, she alleges.

Jackie seemed stuck in an endless loop — she would try to rebuild her life, and then he would tear it town. “It was one thing after another,” she says.

Like Jackie’s marriage, most abusive relationships don’t begin badly, but with romance and high hopes. Immigrant women commonly meet their future spouses when American-born men, or those who have become lawful permanent residents, return to their families’ hometowns to find wives. The men avidly court the women, who are often eager to live in the United States, with its job opportunities and high standard of living. The explosion of international Internet dating sites also has created more chances for American men to meet foreign-born women of other ethnicities: Onaga estimates that about a third of the cases she sees involve mixed-race marriages. Or, as with Jackie and Nancy, some come to the States as young women and meet their husbands here. When the courtship begins abroad, nascent patterns of abuse in the relationship typically become stronger once the woman has moved to the United States, where she no longer has friends and family to watch her back.

Domestic abuse is a crime that tends to escalate gradually. “Batterers by their nature are going to manipulate and take control, and if they don’t walk into a relationship with that power control position they will test the waters,” says Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County’s chief assistant district attorney. “It will start in emotional or verbal abuse. That results for the victim in the breaking down of the heart of their self-esteem, what gives them the ability to fight back. In a lot of relationships, by the time there is the first blow or something is being thrown at them, a lot of women don’t have the self-esteem to stand up and say, ‘I’m out of here.'”

Women often stay because they have strongly negative feelings about divorce or being single again, or because they guiltily assume blame for the beatings, saying that they provoke them with their own behavior. “The truth is that domestic violence is an accepted part of a lot of cultures, ours included,” notes Roberts of Bay Area Legal Aid. “It’s really difficult to know when it’s time to say, ‘This is not okay. I don’t deserve this and this is not part of the bargain I struck when I entered this marriage.'”

But domestic violence is all about dominance, says Gloria Sandoval, executive director of STAND!, which means the most dangerous time for a woman is when she’s trying to end the relationship. “That’s the point at which the abuser realizes he’s losing control,” she says. This is when abusive husbands resort to behaviors like stalking, harassment, threatening deportation, or trying to obtain sole custody of the kids. For immigrant women standing up to their green-card sponsors, it’s a time of particular financial and legal vulnerability. And for those whose husbands have kept them isolated, it is a time of profound loneliness.


Jean met her husband online. A single mother who is Filipina by birth, she had been working in Hong Kong as a nanny to support her four children back in the Philippines. A friend suggested she try finding a pen pal, and not long afterward Jean met her future husband, a merchant marine from Antioch, on an Internet dating site. Her English was minimal, but her friend helped with the e-mails. Soon she and her beau were writing each other every day and arranging to meet when his ship docked in Hong Kong.

Jean’s new boyfriend bought her roses after their first date, took her to dinner when he was in port, and after three months presented her with an engagement ring. Although they had only recently met in person, Jean says it felt like they’d known each other much longer because of their correspondence. The sailor arranged for Jean and her oldest son to move to Antioch, and for him to send home the equivalent of her nanny wages to her remaining three children. “When I marry him, I am not a nanny anymore,” she recalls thinking. “I have a future.”

Jean loved the United States — “It’s like a heaven!” was her first impression. At first, she and her teenage son also loved her new American family and home, although they soon learned that all the chores would be left to them. Together they were responsible for all the cooking and cleaning, plus more demanding tasks such as landscaping, refinishing the furniture, and caring both for her new husband’s sister, who was recovering from cancer, and his wheelchair-bound mother. Jean bathed her mother-in-law, gave her massages, did her makeup, and combed her hair. At first, Jean recalls, she was happy to do it because everyone treated her well. The first foreshadowing of trouble came when Jean found documents regarding a restraining order against her husband — filed by his brother and sister-in-law after he’d allegedly threatened to slit his brother’s throat. Jean tried not to let it worry her. “I don’t put in my mind that he is a violent person because I am good to him, I am good to his family. I serve him, I served his mom, his sister,” she says. “That’s why I don’t think he’d do that to me.”

After several months in the United States, Jean discovered she was pregnant. When she told her husband, he refused to speak with her for two days. “He is so mad — why is it that he became a father so quick?” she recalls. “I felt bad, but I ignored it. I don’t want trouble. I keep our relationship happy.”

To make matters worse, Jean learned that she had become a bone of contention within the household. Her in-laws suspected she’d married for money, and that her husband was planning to refinance the house in order to send more cash to Jean’s children. After a blowout dinner-table argument over the refinancing issue, Jean’s new sister-in-law pointedly told her the house would never be hers. Feeling ill treated, Jean tried to persuade her husband to move into their own place. He refused, saying his mom and sister were sick and had no place else to go. This argument repeated itself many times. Jean felt resented by the family, and angry that she was expected to do heavy chores during her pregnancy, which ultimately ended in miscarriage. Feeling she could never come to terms with her in-laws, Jean asked for a divorce. Then came the first shove.

Unlike many battered women, Jean immediately sought help, and her husband agreed to marriage counseling. She told him she would call the police if he ever raised a hand against her again. But she didn’t, even though the next time the abuse was worse. This time, insisting she was responsible for his lost car keys, her husband threw her over his shoulder, forced her to look for the keys upside down, and then tossed her onto a sofa, all while yelling insults at her. He also threw a sewing machine into a wall, busting a hole in it.

Jean says she tried to keep the peace, even as her affections for her husband were ebbing away. She took to sleeping on the sofa; in return, he accused her of having an affair, since she did not want to have sex. Jean had started working at Wal-Mart; maybe she met a guy there, he suggested. Things devolved into a permanent state of tension. Her relationship with her in-laws worsened, especially during the long periods when her husband was away at sea. Jean’s husband stalwartly refused to move, and in return she stopped doing the housework. “No more Jean,” she says she told him. “Not like before.” Her life became a monotony of Wal-Mart shifts and evenings holed up in her room.

Late one night when her husband was in port, the two got into a marathon five-hour shouting match that ended when he grabbed her by the hair, shook her, and then threw her onto the bed. In a dramatic move, Jean offered her husband her mother-in-law’s metal cane, saying that it would be better for him to kill her with it than to continue with the way things were. He threw the cane, shattering a glass-topped table. Jean had had enough. “I said, no more, no more for me,” she recalls sadly. “It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.”

She wanted to leave, but her son was afraid — a Filipina neighbor had warned that if Jean left her husband, she and her boy would be deported. This was an idea her husband had actively encouraged by conspicuously hunting on the Internet for airline tickets to the Philippines. First Jean got scared, then mad. “Why are you not scared?” she recalls her son asking. “I want to fight how they treat us,” she told him. She had come to the United States hoping her life of domestic servitude was behind her. Instead, she says, “They make us nannies here.”

She sought refuge with a neighbor, who persuaded her to call the police. Because she had marks on her body, the police agreed to prosecute her husband for misdemeanor domestic violence. A few days later, Jean’s boss at Wal-Mart helped her call STAND!’s crisis line, and she was referred to Bay Area Legal Aid for help. But living on her own proved difficult. She stayed with the same neighbor, who charged $300 a month to let her sleep on a flattened TV box, until a friendly co-worker finally took her in. Her mother-in-law, meanwhile, filed for a temporary restraining order, alleging that Jean had threatened her husband with a knife — a lie, Jean says. With assistance from Bay Area Legal Aid, she overcame her fears and began petitioning to stay in the United States and bring her other children here. “Now I am not scared,” she says. “I have rights to fight.”

When Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, it provided $380 million in funding for everything from the National Domestic Violence Hotline to shelters to law-enforcement training. It also gave abused immigrant women a way out: the right to petition for an immigrant visa without the backing of their spouses.

This victory had been a long time coming. For decades, battered-women’s advocates had lobbied for strong federal protections, with little success. Then along came the O.J. Simpson trial, which riveted the nation and showed that domestic strife could hide behind closed doors in even the nicest neighborhoods. “When Congress first passed VAWA, they had been hearing about it for three years,” recalls Lynn Rosenthal, executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Then Nicole Brown Simpson was killed. There is a lot of complexity in that case because of race and class and the courts, but regardless of the outcome, the public saw this woman’s bruised and battered face and heard the 911 calls. VAWA passed against that backdrop.”

The ability to file a VAWA self-petition has helped thousands of women, but it’s a tough process to navigate. The petitioner must demonstrate three facts. First, that she entered into a “good faith” marriage — for love, not citizenship or money. Second, that she is of good moral character — she must not have committed certain crimes in the previous three years, and must submit to police background checks and produce testimony to her good character from community organizations such as churches or schools. Finally, she must prove she was physically or sexually abused, or subjected to “extreme cruelty,” such as psychological abuse or threats of violence. This might require police and hospital records, witnesses, photographic evidence of injuries, and/or testimony from clergy, counselors, or service providers. Some of this proof may be difficult to obtain, especially if the woman can’t go home to claim her documents. Women whose fear of retaliation prevented them from making formal complaints in the first place, or whose husbands kept their wives’ names off household paperwork and bank accounts, may have an even harder time making a case.

A second option is a U visa, available to victims of major crimes, on condition they cooperate with the authorities in prosecuting the wrongdoer. To maintain eligibility, a U visa candidate must be willing to provide law enforcement with almost unlimited time and assistance.

Either of these routes is emotionally draining. “It’s not like a job application,” says Joanne Lin, senior staff attorney for Legal Momentum, a national women’s rights advocacy group. “It’s humiliating, and not everybody wants to get involved. Think of the worst thing that ever happened in your life — what if you had to basically write an application about that and collect documentation about that and get other people to talk about that? People don’t want to do it unless they absolutely have to.”

It also takes time, requiring several months on average, and countless appointments with a legal advocate. In Alameda County, O’Malley says, domestic-violence victims may have to seek help at as many as 25 different locations, which is the impetus behind the county’s plans for a new Family Justice Center, designed as a one-stop shop for legal assistance, counseling, emergency aid, and childcare. But that facility doesn’t yet exist. “I’ve had people preparing the petition for a year because it’s so much paperwork,” Onaga says. “People are in crisis. They’ve just left home. They have nowhere to go. They’re in a shelter. They don’t have a phone. They don’t have food, and they have to do this really intensive legal work.

“I have clients that disappear,” she continues. “I call them and the number is disconnected. Then a couple of months later they show up.” Or, if the woman is still living with her husband, Onaga says, she will sometimes call her on the phone, then say, “Oh my God, he’s coming!” and hang up.

Adding to the difficulties, it often takes more than a year to get a work permit after filing a VAWA self-petition — a fact that puts immigrant women in a bad financial spot. Public benefits such as CalWorks and MediCal are usually awarded more quickly, but they’re seldom enough. “Public benefits is not a huge chunk of change that can really sustain a family in the Bay Area,” Lin says. “If you’re a battered spouse living in the San Francisco Bay Area in a high-end real-estate market, how are you possibly going to leave or find another place to live? Shelters generally have a six-week maximum, so that’s not a long-term option, and unless you can live with family or friends you don’t have many other options.”

What most worries women’s advocates, however, is that the Violence Against Women Act is set to expire this fall. Although the law has had strong bipartisan support in the past, advocates worry that Congress’ summer schedule will be jam-packed with high-profile topics such as Social Security reform, leaving VAWA to languish in legislative purgatory. If Congress fails to act on reauthorization, it would leave funding for VAWA-supported services in limbo and stall hoped-for reforms. The reformers hope to bar the Department of Homeland Security from detaining or deporting women with pending VAWA applications, expand protections to parents or adopted children the abuser may have brought into the United States, and win immediate work authorization for women who file VAWA petitions.

As a whole, the post-9/11 era has not been a time of sympathy and understanding for those who dream of being American citizens. New immigrants know their presence is resented, and even treated as suspect. As an example, Onaga recalls a Muslim client who was preparing her self-petition and wanted to include a letter from her mosque to vouch for her good moral character, but worried it would be held against her. Was it a good idea, she wondered, to show that you are a person of faith if that faith is Islam? “The way that immigrant women are trapped in this situation has everything to do with immigration policy and anti-immigrant sentiment,” Onaga says. “We’re not going to be able to protect battered immigrant women without any understanding of the context they’re in and making immigration law fair, because the way that it is now, it separates families, it racially profiles people, it puts people in impossible situations, and it doesn’t give people due process. It’s a really broken system, and a lot of people are getting trapped.”

Hundreds of women living in the East Bay are indeed trapped, and even for those who have worked tirelessly to extricate themselves from their abusive situations, it’s hard to make a clean break. Take Jackie, who is now happily remarried with a new baby and preparing to start a second career by getting her Realtor’s license. Her new husband would like to adopt her eldest two daughters, but she says her ex-husband refuses to either terminate his parental rights or pay child support. And unless he does so, their lives will remain awkwardly woven together.

Nancy was nearly forced to leave the country because she failed to show up for her immigration interview after her husband hid her mail. She is continuing with nursing school and working as a nursing assistant while she waits for final approval of her green card. Her husband passed away before their divorce could be finalized, and left her nothing in his will. She says her life is better, but still difficult — she doesn’t make enough to support her children in Ghana, but hopes that one day they can come to America to be educated.

Jean has filed for divorce and continues to work at Wal-Mart. She and her son still rely on friends for places to stay while she works to bring her three youngest children over from the Philippines. She is swamped with government paperwork. Still, when she thinks about the future, it seems full of promise — just knowing that she has the right to fight her own legal battles is a happy ending in and of itself. “I am hopeful now, because of her,” she says, casting a grateful look at Roberts, her advocate from Bay Area Legal Aid, who sits beside her.

“It’s you who is doing this,” Roberts reminds her gently.

Jean shyly acknowledges the fact, and leans over to give her friend a hug. “I am free now,” she says.

Slaving Away

Scores of illegal Bay Area immigrants are subject to forced labor, abuse, and even imprisonment on the job site.

Florencia Molina Alvarez, a 28-year-old mother of three from Mexico, was studying to be a seamstress when her instructor told her of a wonderful sewing job in the United States, where the employers would provide them with room and board. It seemed such a good opportunity that both women decided to go.

They were taken to Los Angeles to work in a factory that made party dresses for major retailers including Sears and JC Penney. It was hot, difficult work. Alvarez did everything from cutting the fabric to sewing the dresses to loading the truck. The factory had more than fifty other employees who traded shifts on the sewing machines. At day’s end, the others went home, but not Alvarez and her former teacher. The women had come to the United States to find work, only to find themselves virtually enslaved.

Indentured servitude in the United States is not as uncommon as people might think. Earlier this year, Boalt Law School professor Laurel Fletcher released a study of human trafficking in California that tallied more than five hundred cases of forced labor over a five-year period, most of them in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Staffers at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, which handles most of the local cases, estimate they currently have about sixty active cases, and field six to twelve new intake calls a month. That’s just the ones they know about. “This is an illicit activity — it’s very hard to find,” Fletcher says.

According to US government estimates, between 14,500 and 17,500 men and women are trafficked into the country each year for forced labor. They come from every age group and from nearly every country in the developing world. “Most of the time they are given an offer they can’t refuse,” says Namju Cho, communications and policy director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, a Los Angeles nonprofit that opened the nation’s first shelter for trafficking victims. “The recruiter approached them at their most desperate time.”

Few, if any, get a job anything like the one they signed up for. Human trafficking typically occurs in poorly regulated industries with a high demand for cheap labor — domestic and food services, agriculture, construction, clothing manufacture, and the sex trade. The trafficked workers are often hidden in plain sight, says Oakland Police Lieutenant Mike Yoell, head of the OPD’s Special Victims Section, which just received a $450,000 federal grant to combat the problem. Yoell says there are several hundred victims in Oakland, primarily Asian and Southeast Asian women made to work in “massage” parlors that easily blend in with other houses on residential streets, but bear telltale signs of forced labor: doors that unlock only from the outside, and workers who don’t carry ID or speak English. Others work as maids and nannies in private homes, or are hidden away on suburban farms and ranches. They are notoriously difficult to reach; among other tactics, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach hides tiny cards with hotline numbers in bathroom stalls, ethnic grocery stores, and beauty shops — anyplace trafficking victims might be temporarily free of their captors.

Immigrants held captive by their employers face many of the same problems as immigrants under the control of their spouses. They are financially dependent on their abusers, who are also their visa sponsors. Threats of deportation and jail are used to discourage escape. Traffickers use many of the same control mechanisms, such as isolating these workers from others who speak their language, keeping them under lock and key, and confiscating all their identifying documents.

They also use job-related tactics. Many claim the workers owe them for their passage to the United States, and withhold wages until this “debt” is settled. To keep their indentured workers on the hook, traffickers may insist they buy food and toiletries from the boss at vastly inflated prices. They also exploit hometown connections. Often, Fletcher says, they recruit by returning to their hometowns and representing themselves as a respected member of the community who can help people have a better life in the United States. That way, if the victims later manage to complain to people back home, they may be seen as ungrateful. Worse, the traffickers may threaten to retaliate against the workers’ families if they escape or contact police.

The illicit employers also rely on verbal or physical abuse, or simply bone-wearying labor. For Alvarez and her friend, her new “job” meant workdays that began at 5:30 a.m. and sometimes lasted until midnight. At night they slept in a tiny fabric-sample room. “They had a restroom, but there was no place to take a shower,” Alvarez recalls. “They gave me ten minutes for food during the day for lunch and I ate beans and rice.”

The women were forbidden to speak to other employees, leave the building, write letters home, or use the phone. And the factory had a security guard who watched them closely. Alvarez despaired of making an escape. “I didn’t know one word of English or one person in this country,” she recalls.

To make matters worse, she was paid very little — her boss claimed Alvarez owed her $2,581 for her passage, which would have to be worked off. When Alvarez caught her boss undercounting the number of hours she’d worked, she complained, at which point the guard began tailing her more closely and her boss ratcheted up the intimidation. “She started to tell me about the police and law enforcement, that they were not trustable,” Alvarez recalls. “She said that dogs have more rights in this country than you.”

Alvarez, of course, was in the country illegally, and had naively surrendered her ID papers to her traffickers. Her escape was made possible by a Spanish-speaking co-worker, who intuited something was wrong and slipped her phone number to Alvarez. She had been pestering her boss to let her attend church, and one Sunday the boss finally gave in, making the two women promise to return right after Mass. But upon reaching the corner, they realized they could run away. They had no idea where they were, and no clue how to operate an American pay phone. Fortunately for the women, a passerby helped them phone the co-worker, who came with her husband to pick them up, then took them to a restaurant for their first taste of liberty. “When I see Sizzler, for me it means freedom,” Alvarez recalls happily. “I was shaking, I was nervous, and so many emotions I had at the same time. But I thought to myself, you are not going back with those people.”

The next day her boss put two and two together. She interrogated the co-worker and her husband, who also worked at the factory, driving Alvarez and her friend into hiding in San Diego. They even eluded the FBI, which had begun an investigation against their trafficker and had had an undercover agent working in the factory. When the feds finally located them, Alvarez agreed to testify against her oppressor in return for a T visa — a witness-protection visa available to trafficking victims, much like the U visa for battered women. Eligibility, however, is contingent on a victim’s willingness to cooperate with the authorities, and for some, that can be a deal-breaker. “We’re not out there looking for these women to prosecute them and send them away,” Lt. Yoell assures. “We’re looking at them first of all to rescue them, and second of all to use the knowledge that they have to put the people who are abusing them in jail.”

That may not convince those who live in fear of their traffickers. “Every client that participates in a law-enforcement interview is risking their own physical safety and perhaps the physical safety of their loved ones,” notes Ivy Lee, staff attorney with Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. “Is the FBI going to protect your client 24 hours a day? I don’t think so.”

Such was the case with Alvarez: After only six months under house arrest, her trafficker returned to Mexico to find her. “My trafficker went to my hometown at my house and visited my mom and asked where I was and where my children are,” she says. But Alvarez was not cowed. She continues to repeat her story at legislative hearings and anywhere else she thinks it will make a difference. Thanks to the T visa, she now has a work permit and is employed as a cashier. The Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking assisted her in the transition with shelter, food stamps, a bus pass, and English classes. She is now trying to bring her two children to the United States, and she has no plans to stop testifying, no matter what her trafficker threatens. “If I don’t say anything, she might do these things again to other people and I don’t want that,” Alvarez says. “I want to say that there is help and people who trust you even though you don’t have papers. It is not true that dogs have more rights in this country.” — Kara Platoni

Resources for Immigrants and others

Domestic Violence

Bay Area Legal Aid
Alameda County: 510-250-5270
Contra Costa County: 925-219-3325

International Institute of the East Bay

Catholic Charities of the East Bay
Alameda County: 510-768-3100
Contra Costa County: 925-825-3099

Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach
Oakland office: 510-251-2846
San Francisco office: 415-567-6255
Shelter crisis line: 800-751-0880

Crisis line for South Asian women

STAND! Against Domestic Violence
24-hour crisis line: 888-215-5555

National Domestic Violence Hotline
800-799-SAFE (7233)

<span class="storydeck"Trafficking/Forced Labor

Coalition To Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST)

API Legal Outreach See above
Narika See above

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