Excellence in Service to Women Grant
JFON Puts Abused Immigrant Women on Path to Self-Sufficiency
BY MARY LEE HARVEY DIRCKS | PHOTOS BY DEBRA S. KAPLAN
We don’t end violence against women until we help the last girl,” says Gretchen McGill, Justice For Our Neighbors Nebraska (JFON-NE) staff attorney, as she recalls this quote from a conference she attended earlier this year. And who is the last girl? According to McGill and others working in these trenches, she is the immigrant woman who is in this country without legal status, trapped in a domestic violence (DV) situation. “We’re helping the last girl,” McGill says emphatically.
JFON-NE earned this year’s Women’s Fund of Omaha (WF) $25,000 Excellence in Service to Women Grant based on the impact of their Legal Services for Battered Immigrant Women Program. This program not only offers free legal services to victims of domestic abuse seeking immigration assistance, it also provides for vital outreach and educational presentations, according to Emiliano Lerda, JFON-NE executive director. “There are many victims of domestic abuse that are on one side of a very complicated system,” he explains. “We know that there is a solution or a remedy on the other side. So our attorneys walk them through that complicated legal system so that on the other side they can walk away with legal status and a work permit, which empowers them to get out of an abusive relationship, provide for themselves and for their children, and in many cases even start their own businesses.”
Outreach into the immigrant community and help from human service agencies and law enforcement is key to reaching hundreds of immigrant women who are trapped in domestic abuse with no way out. “They [immigrant DV victims] had a right to the remedy all along, but they didn’t know about it or didn’t have the financial means to afford legal representation,” Lerda says. “That’s why educational outreach presentations are so important.” In the Metro-Omaha area, The Legal Services for Battered Immigrant Women Program provided immigration legal services to women on 153 domestic violence (DV) cases in 2013 and 148 in 2014, according to JFON-NE reports.
Previous support from the Women’s Fund attracted additional funding, which culminated in the agency’s ability to add DV Attorney Gretchen McGill to the staff. “Gretchen brings a very particular skill set and expertise. It is hard to find that kind of talent. We are very lucky,” Lerda says. McGill organizes educational opportunities for social service providers, law enforcement agencies and other entities within the criminal justice system on best practices for working with immigrant victims of domestic violence. “Outreach to law enforcement to see these victims differently is very important,” McGill emphasizes. “Victims of domestic violence already face so many barriers, but when you add that she doesn’t speak English and is here without legal status, the barriers compound very quickly,” she says.
McGill explains that generally, a U.S. citizen would apply for legal status on behalf of the non-citizen. In a marriage where the husband is the U.S. citizen and his wife is not, he would apply for legal status on her behalf. But in a situation where domestic violence is present, the abuser uses the threat of deportment and the promise to apply for benefits as yet another element of control to keep her from leaving him and remain trapped.
Two federal acts JFON-NE utilizes to assist immigrant victims of domestic violence in obtaining legal status are the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the U-Visa. In 1994, Congress passed the VAWA to provide a way out of domestic violence for non-citizen immigrant people who are dependent on their abusers for legal status. To qualify for VAWA, the victim must be the wife or child of a U.S. Citizen or legal resident, and the crime must have occurred in the U.S. In 2000, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act authorized the U-Visa, which covers a broader spectrum of qualifying crimes and allows for non-married immigrant victims to apply for legal status—provided that they are helpful to the investigation and/or prosecution of the crime. “The U-Visa was enacted by Congress in recognition that there was a whole population of people who had been victims of crimes who were not coming forward to report them because of their fear of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, for a variety of reasons,” McGill says.
She contends that continued outreach and education is vital for the U-Visa to fulfill its intent of creating a circle of trust and cooperation between the immigrant community and law enforcement. “There is a lot of gray area that is up to the discretion of law enforcement,” McGill says about the element of the U-Visa that requires certification from law enforcement that the victim is being helpful. McGill uses this scenario to illustrate the compounded plight of a non-married immigrant DV victim without legal status: The woman calls 911 for protection, but before police arrive, her abuser terrorizes her with threats that he will call immigration and have her deported, and she’ll never see her children again. Maybe he’s even in the next room on his cell phone. When the police arrive, the victim is too afraid to report the abuse and sends them away. “Trying to educate and broaden law enforcement’s view of what is helpful from the victim’s viewpoint is definitely an area that requires soft and steady pressure,” McGill says, “because without that certification form signed by law enforcement, there is no U-Visa.”
Nancy Cardoza, JFON-NE DV staff attorney, says the U-Visa and VAWA “give the power back to the victim and allows them to not only sustain themselves but their families. Many clients go on to attend college and even open their own business-es.” Cardoza says she witnesses this trans-formation of JFON-NE clients first hand. “That is why I love my job,” she adds. Lerda plans for JFON-NE to continue expanding outreach and educational opportunities that promote good trusting relationships between law enforcement and the immigrant community, and to arm social service providers and other agencies with information to refer DV victims who need legal assistance for immigration. “There is a lot more that needs to be done. We are still at the beginning of this journey,” Lerda adds. “But we couldn’t do what we are doing without the unbelievable support from this very generous philanthropic community.”
From the Women’s Fund’s standpoint, JFON-NE’s work is critical. “We are thrilled to be able to support Justice for our Neighbors and their crucial work of helping women escape violent relationships,” says Michelle Zych, WF executive director. “The Women’s Fund of Omaha has been committed to ending domestic violence since our ‘Can We Stop the Violence in Omaha?’ report in 1995, and will continue to fund programs like JFON-NE until the violence does stop.”
Meet Espela: Young Mother Finds Her Way to Endless Possibilities
Espela, a young independent woman living and working in her country, raising two beautiful daughters on her own. She meets and marries a man with permanent legal residence in the U.S. and follows him to Omaha. He gains citizenship shortly thereafter and assists her in bringing her two young daughters to join them. On the surface this sounds like a lovely story, but Espela unknowingly married into domestic violence, so its Cinderella charm quickly tarnishes.
Over time, as the physical and emotional abuse within her marriage grew in severity, Espela’s world diminished. “I don’t know at what point I became nothing, but before I met him I was completely independent. I worked in my country and took care of my daughters,” she says. She faded into nothingness a little at a time, she says. He kept her isolated in the house with threats of deporting her and separating her from her daughters forever if she ventured out on her own or caused any problems. She had no reason not to believe him. She was living in a country where she did not speak the language, did not have legal status, and was without family or friends to help her.
Espela suffered many kinds of abuse for several years, “but the worst type of abuse that I experienced was toward my daughter,” she recounts, sobbing ferociously. Espela’s husband sexually assaulted her seven-year-old daughter on her birthday. Espela found out two months later. “I remember it clearly,” she continues. “We were in the living room. We had all just come home from the store. My husband went out back to check the garden. My older daughter, Emilia, asked me to sign a document. ‘The school wants to tell us about our body growth,’ she told me. My younger daughter, Mia, asked what they would talk to her about.” They both explained to Mia how a girl’s body changes as she gets older. And then, Espela seized the opportunity to discuss appropriate and inappropriate touching, like any good mother would. “That is when I explained to her that nobody—no matter who it was—is allowed to touch her inappropriately—no matter if it was a family member or a friend or a stranger—nobody would be allowed to touch her.” Mia’s posture and facial expression changed drastically as Espela was talking and she knew that something had happened. In her mind she frantically grasped for the answer of who could possibly have harmed her daughter in this way. She knelt down in front of Mia, who was now looking down at the floor. Espela cupped Mia’s face in her hands and repeatedly reassured her that there was nothing she could say that would make Espela stop loving her and that everything would be OK. Through Mia’s limited responses, Espela recognized the threats her husband used to intimidate her, and she knew. She did not make her daughter utter the words. She simply hugged her and then turned to Emilia and requested that she fetch a sweater for herself and her sister and asked both of them to wait on the front porch as she gathered their personal documents. “In that moment, I couldn’t think about myself; I had to think about them.” She faced the paralyzing fear of not knowing how she would provide for her family and ventured out to find refuge at a shelter. She eventually found her way to Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska (JFON-NE) for immigration legal assistance. Es-pela’s husband was prosecuted and is serving time in jail for his crimes.“When I first arrived at JFON, the first thing they told me was, ‘You are not alone and we are going to help you.’ And sincerely I felt like they gave me hope,” Espela says. “It was a safe place.” They helped her obtain the paperwork required to apply for benefits under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. She was granted deferred action and a work permit in 2008. “I remember it as if it were today,” she says. “I remember that we came out of the immigration office on H Street and I couldn’t believe it and I hugged the woman that came with me from JFON and she told me, ‘This is a new beginning for you and your daughters. You are very lucky.’ But I said, ‘No it’s not luck. It is a blessing.’”
Espela was eager to find a job to provide for her family and started work at a bakery offering 12-hour shifts at night. “I could never have been able to obtain a job like that without a work permit,” she says. She was grateful to have it but started thinking that she could do more. “I began to investigate a job I could do so that I could spend more time with my daughters,” she says. She became certified in event coordination and decoration to launch a business of her own. “So they [Emilia and Mia] go to school during the week and on the weekend they help me with my events,” she says. She calls them her business partners to give them confidence to believe in themselves and what they can accomplish.
Espela’s business is booming. “There are times when people will call me to set up an event and even when I tell them I don’t have room, they keep insisting that I at least try to do it,” she says. “It’s truly an honor. It’s the type of satisfaction I can’t describe in words,” she expresses through grateful tears. “Looking back and knowing that at one point I thought I was nothing; it is a great satis-faction now that it [the feeling of being nothing] doesn’t even fit in my heart.” Espela was granted legal permanent status in 2009 and intends to apply for citizenship later this year.
She tells Nancy Cardoza, bilingual staff attorney at JFON-NE, who translates for Espela as she shares her story, “Your work goes beyond filling out documents.” She lists the good moments in their life, recounting that her daughters’ first requests are always to call JFON-NE to share the news. “You are part of us now,” she says.
“If I didn’t have the immigration benefit, we wouldn’t have what we have today,” Espela says. “I try to show my daughters that when God gives you something, you shouldn’t keep it for yourself. You should always give something back.” And she does. Espela shares her story to help others when she can and encourages other immigrant women trapped in the cycle of domestic violence to reach out for help. “I have conquered the fear and I want other people to know they need to stop and release the fear and have faith,” she says with conviction. “There are good people out there to help you.”
Espela, Emilia, and Mia are real clients at JFON-NE. The writer used psuedonyms to tell their story.