A non-profit in Bonita Springs that gives free legal help to undocumented people in the area, has a new program. The group is helping people obtain a U-Visa, which gives temporary legal status to victims of domestic abuse and rape, among other crimes.
The program is effective in helping some people flee their abusers, but it also requires undocumented victims to clear some big hurdles.
A woman we have called Anjelica for this story, said her relationship with her partner was great at first. They were happy and eventually had a child together. However, after some time, she says he became abusive.
“At the beginning things were not that bad,” Anjelica said. “The insults were also not that bad. But now that I think about it, I used to justify it because I loved him.”
Anjelica said the beatings and verbal abuse got progressively worse. But, she never told anyone. That’s because Anjelica, who is an immigrant from Mexico, is undocumented. She said she didn’t want to call law enforcement because she was afraid of getting deported. In her eyes, she was on her own.
After years of abuse, Anjelica’s partner eventually left her taking her car with him. One day, she had enough and demanded he pay her back. They made plans to meet. But, instead of handing over her money, Anjelica says he beat her worse than ever.
“That day that he beat me, I didn’t even call law enforcement on him,” she said. “He called law enforcement claiming that I wanted to kill him.”
The cops weren’t fooled, though. Anjelica was bleeding and badly hurt, while her partner was unscathed. So, her abuser was finally thrown in jail.
What’s more, she now has a police report that documents the abuse. This means she qualifies for a special visa called a U-Visa, or a ‘Victim Visa’.
Right now, she’s waiting for word on her application, and there's a good chance she’ll get the visa. With a police report, the visas are much easier to obtain. But, herein lies the problem with the U-visa.
Most undocumented domestic abuse victims are like Anjelica are afraid to call the cops. And a police report is essential to getting a visa.
Maria Herrera, an immigration specialist in Southwest Florida, said sometimes an undocumented status makes these women a target.
“Because they won’t talk, they won’t defend themselves. They are afraid to call the police. They are afraid to get any help from anywhere and because they keep quiet, some of the U.S. citizens or residents or even other immigrants take advantage of that and they become victims,” she explained.
Yaroslava Garcia, the Clinical Director at Abuse Counseling and Treatment (ACT) in Fort Myers, said most of the time these victims don’t know they have any rights. And many leave abusers and go to a shelter without ever calling the cops, which means they have no hope of getting a U-Visa down the road. Garcia said the problem is widespread.
“Hundreds and hundreds of cases come through our doors,” she said. “We see these cases every single day here at ACT. Every single day.”
Garcia said culture plays a big role here, too. She said domestic abuse is sometimes less stigmatized in the countries these women leave behind, and leaving the relationship can be out of the question.
“Depending on the cultural background of the person we are talking about, they may not believe in divorce, or they may not understand the process of a divorce,” she said.
Herrera recently started a special program for U-Visas at The Amigos Center in Bonita Springs, which provides free legal assistance to immigrants. Herrera said she did this kind of work for years at a non-profit where she used to work. She said she’s glad she can now continue to help victims in the area. And she already has an immense caseload. But, Herrera said it's hard work. The U-visas are complicated and the stakes for getting everything right is extremely high.
“If they are denied the U-Visa, then they are given a notice to appear in court and they could be deported,” she said.
If that happens, Herrera said she can’t help them. She said luckily, in the years she’s been applying for U-Visas, she’s never been denied.
And if these victims do get a visa and are separated from their abusers, they get a whole new life.
Anjelica said the years of abuse took an emotional toll, especially on her young daughter. But, for the first time in a long time, she said she's moving forward in her life.
“My attorney told me I don’t have to go anywhere. There is justice here and I have rights and I am starting to believe that,” she said. “I know that I am going to be able to move ahead and I am going to be able to get ahead and I am going to make it.”
Anjelica said she feels free for the first time in many years. But mostly, she said she hopes other women realize there is help for women who are being abused even if they are undocumented.