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At any price: Marriage and battered immigrant women.

Marisol Flores pulled out two Polaroid pictures. They showed a bloodshot left eye about ready to pop out and a dark welt just below it.

The photographs, she said, were taken almost a month after her ex-husband, in a fit of rage, beat her severely enough to require an emergency room visit.

"I lived in constant fear of his explosive temper," said Flores, who entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico 12 years ago. "He threatened to kill me all the time."

But she saw no way out: She had no money, no English language skills and no way to survive except to rely on her abusive husband.

The story of Flores, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is shared by many immigrant women, who arrive in America with gilded dreams but find themselves trapped in the tyranny of abusive relationships.

Speaking little English and lacking the support networks of their native countries, many do not seek help. Others cling fast to traditional views of marriage and family--at any cost.

Still others are kept silent by husbands who threaten to use the women's immigration statuses to manipulate and maintain power over them.

"Violence may be the same, but the barriers that battered immigrant women experience--things that keep them trapped--are worse," said Jennifer Welch, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women's Network, which represents 55 domestic violence service agencies.

But as serious as the problem may be, evidence of the problem has remained largely anecdotal in part because research into immigrant communities has been practically nonexistent.

"Women need their voices to be heard so that other people see it as a problem," said Marianne Yoshioka, who specializes in the issue as an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work. "But the lack of the research in the area prevents the issue from entering people's radar."

But most Chicago-area social service agencies that serve battered immigrant women say that, while they believe the number of incidents has remained unchanged, more women have come forward in the last six years due to federal legislation that gives them legal leverage.

A little-known provision of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, has increased access to green cards for undocumented immigrants who have been brutalized in their homes.

Under VAWA, 17,907 women nationwide have applied for permanent residency since the provision took effect in 1996, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. More than 5,500 of those applications were submitted in 2001, twice the number filed in 1997.

Flores filed her application two years ago. "Every problem of my life is documented," she said, surveying the plies of paper spread across her kitchen


"My life is written," she said. "It tells the story of Mexico, of every time he beat me, of every court action, of the birth of my children, the hospital record for when I was beaten and when I gave birth. ...

"What I don't understand is how this pile of paper got so big."

Utter Hell

The Chicago Reporter pieced together Flores' life based on extensive interviews, and a review of police reports, court documents and her affidavits to the INS. The story provides a rare glimpse into the elusive lives of battered immigrant women.

Flores was a "naive" 21-year-old when she left Mexico to follow her aunt, who lived in Chicago. The opportunities were better here, and so, she believed, was the lifestyle.

Lacking legal papers, she relied on her aunt to set up a clandestine trip to America. But soon after her arrival, she was told the price of her passage. Without her knowledge, her aunt had cut a deal with a man named Esteban, then 35. By paying her travel expenses, he had bought Flores. "I had no idea that she was setting me up for a life of utter hell," she said in affidavits.

The first sight of Esteban disgusted Flores: "He had a strange look in his eyes, which scared me. He was tall, thin, with dark halt. He revolted me physically."

Abuse began from day one. In his dilapidated apartment, he put on a pornographic movie. When she refused to watch it, he raped her.

"I wanted to escape but I did not even know what street I was on," she said. "I was able to call my aunt to tell her what [he] had done to me. ... She just laughed at me and hung up the phone."

When Esteban went to work, he locked her in. Living there was like living in a dumpster, she said. The wails were caved in; giant rats crawled on the floor; spider-webs were all over the bathroom. "I tried to escape three times. I screamed out of the window, but the street was always vacant," she said. "He told me I must accept what he said."

When Esteban was at home, he drank--so much so that he suffered two minor strokes. "He also used this as an excuse to hit me," she said.

Within two months, Flores was pregnant. "He told me that no daughter of his would be born without his name. He made me so many promises of changing. Over and over he promised that he would never hit me again," she said. "I believed him."

They were married June 25, 1990.

Despite the abuse, Flores tried to make the marriage work. He "is not a handsome man, but this was not important to me. I had proven to him that I was more than willing to make our relationship work by forgiving him for all the abuse and giving him another chance," she said. "I made myself believe that maybe, just maybe, our marriage could survive.

"But I was wrong."

Leading Cause

For the last decade, studies have shown that domestic violence is a leading cause of injury for women in the United States.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice found that violence by "intimate partners" accounted for about 20 percent of all violence against women, tallying about 960,000 incidents a year.

In Chicago, more than 205,000 domestic violence calls were made to the Chicago Police Department in 2000--an average of 562 calls a day. Numbers for 2001 are not yet available.

But when it comes to immigrant women, finding accurate domestic violence data is nearly impossible, since few studies have sampled a large enough number of immigrants to estimate the prevalence of partner abuse.

"We are just at the beginning phase of understanding what immigrant women are going through," said Leni Mann, associate director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco.

Researchers often must jump through hoops to get immigrant women to talk about the violence. "It's very difficult to gauge, because the issue tends to remain hidden in many communities," said Jeri Linas, assistant director of the Mayor's Office on Domestic Violence in Chicago, which coordinates services among city departments, community providers and police.

Still, domestic violence has been documented in many studies as pervasive within all ethnic and cultural groups. The studies also show that many people--even the victims themselves--may not recognize it as a problem.

Last year, for example, a survey of 94 Indian and Pakistani women--including 72 from Illinois--found that 39 percent were physically abused within the past year. And 53 percent said domestic violence was culturally acceptable in certain circumstances.

"It is clear that domestic violence cuts across all boundaries," said study author Najma M. Adam, an assistant professor at Illinois State University in downstate Normal. "If anything, being an immigrant is a further risk factor for these women."

The Justice Department's study also brings to light another aspect of domestic violence: The poorer a woman is, the more likely she is to get battered.

According to the study, the rate of domestic violence is 3 percent for women in families earning more than $75,000 a year. But in the poorest families, earning less than $7,500, the rate jumps to 20 percent.

The figures paint an alarming picture for immigrant families, who made up nearly one-sixth of America's poor in 2000--4.7 million people, according to the census.

Unbreakable Commitment

Sofia Garcia was 16 in a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero when she married her boyfriend of three years. The abuse began on their wedding day, she said.

Shy and soft-spoken, Garcia explained why she didn't leave him: "My mother always told me, 'If you leave him, you are not going to be worth anything. Nobody will accept you anymore.'"

Two months later, in 1989, the couple slipped past the border and headed to Chicago. Garcia's life only got worse.

The abuse not only continued--it intensified. She was carrying her first child when her husband kicked her in the stomach, she said.

"I wanted to leave him, but I didn't have the courage to do it," she said. "And I still wanted to keep the family together."

Garcia's story illustrates an unusual problem facing many immigrant groups: marital abuse combined with an almost unbreakable commitment to marriage.

Experts say the divorce rate of recent Mexican immigrants is scarcely higher than in Mexico, where it was 0.5 per 1,000 people in 1999, according to government figures. By contrast, America's divorce rate was eight times higher, or 4.1 per 1000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And a low divorce rate can reflect connubial bliss or conceal its opposite. Latinas often believe that physical and mental abuse is worth bearing as long as the family isn't broken up, said Celia Martinez, case manager at the Women's Program of the Heartland Alliance, a Chicago-based social service agency.

To overcome such barriers, battered women's advocates have been working with immigrants to break their unquestioning acceptance of troubled marriages. Their message: Abuse should not be tolerated.

In 1994, they were instrumental in getting Congress to include a provision in VAWA that enabled abused immigrants to file their own bids for permanent residency without the support or knowledge of their husbands.

Prior to the legislation, only husbands with a residency status or citizenship could petition for the green card on behalf of their immigrant wives. Often, experts said, abusive men threatened to stop the application process or never started it.

"This legislation would never have passed had it not been for the incredible coalition of all the immigrant groups around the country" acknowledged U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat whose 9th District includes the north lakefront and suburbs.

In 2000, Schakowsky sponsored a bill that eventually became the blueprint for changing VAWA to provide battered immigrants further legal protections. The changes eliminated a requirement that women return to their native countries while waiting for their green card applications to be processed.

But the measure is not without its critics. "People in this country illegally are, in fact, criminals. These women have broken our laws," said David A. Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, which advocates for stricter immigration controls. "Undocumented immigrants should be entitled to nothing but due process and be treated humanely during the deportation process."

Proponents of the law bristle at such remarks. "This is, by definition, the group of immigrants who should be and would be here legally, but for the abuser's control over the immigration status," said Leslye E. Orloff, director of the Immigrant Woman Program at NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, D.C. "So we are only giving them with VAWA what they would've had anyway, if the citizen or resident spouse wasn't an abuser."

Dirty Laundry

At a recent gathering of Grupo Maria, the Heartland Alliance's weekly support group for Latina immigrants, the consensus was that husbands are forever, no matter how badly behaved.

Martinez describes such attitudes as "marianismo," a term often used to portray the supposed ideal of femininity in Latin America, that women are to be faithful and subordinate. "They were taught that's their role," she said.

The sentiment is also common among Asian immigrants. "Asians call it 'family honor.' In their mind, 'It's better for me to suffer as an individual than to hurt everybody,"' said Yoshioka of Columbia University.

"Any public disclosure of family problems is equated with bringing shame on the family in Asian communities," added Firoza Chic Dabby, director of the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence in San Francisco.

"The shame accrues to the family not because they have a batterer in the family, but because the woman went and told somebody that she's been battered," Chic Dabby said.

Reaction to Sept. 11 exacerbated the problem, said Itedal Shalabi, co-founder of Arab-American Family Services, Inc., in West Lawn on the Southwest Side.

"We had some of our own clients drop the battery charges because [they] didn't want to go to the court," Shalabi said. "The community is putting more pressure on them: 'Look what's happening already out there. Now, are you going to make your husband go to jail?"'

Sgt. Judy Martin, domestic violence coordinator for the Chicago Police Department, also wrestles with the problem. "I always tell everybody, 'Call the police.' But I know it's not that simple," said Martin, who volunteered at a battered women 's shelter before joining the force.

"If I was being abused, I probably wouldn't call the police, either. I guess it's because I'm Irish and Russian, and we grew up learning that you keep that to yourself," she said. "You don't air your dirty laundry."

The police department has recruited multilingual officers to better serve immigrant communities, Martin said. More than 21 percent of the police force is multi-lingual, proficient in 41 different languages ranging from Spanish to Yiddish, according to the department's Language Bank.

And when Martin holds seminars on domestic violence in an area with a large immigrant population, she uses terms such as "family safety" or "healthy relationships." Otherwise, "people won't come out," she said.

New Life

Three-and-a-half years into her marriage, Flores reached the end of her rope.

The pivotal moment came on New Year's Eve in 1993, when she fought back against Esteban for the first time.

But her resistance so infuriated him, she said, that he grabbed a telephone cord and nearly choked her to death. Finally, the police were called.

Esteban was charged with domestic battery, a Class A misdemeanor, court records show. If convicted, he faced up to 364 days in jail and a $2,500 fine. His trial was set for February 1994.

Convinced that her life was at stake, she finally left him. "For the first time, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief," she said.

But he tracked her down the day before his trial. "My blood froze. I began to shake, I was so scared," she said. "I asked him, 'How did you find me?' With a sickening grin, he answered: 'You know I have my ways.'"

He talked her out of going to his trial, she said. He "told me he had been mistreated in jail, and I felt sorry for him. I thought that, since I was now living apart from [him], he was not going to be able to continue hitting me, and I did not want him to have any legal problems. So I gave in."

But the decision came back to haunt her. On Thanksgiving 1994, she ended up in the emergency room after his blows nearly knocked her left eye out of its socket, she said.

By then, the recurring abuse also had taken its toll on her mentally. Her situation became so dire that she said she "lost it" and even considered suicide. "I was in so much despair that I knew I needed help," she said. "It was too much for me."

Then she learned of Mujeres Latinas en Accion, a social service agency in her Pilsen neighborhood on the Southwest Side. There, she began receiving weekly counseling. Four months later, she got an order of protection against her husband.

Flores has rebuilt her life. She began learning English, got a high school equivalency diploma and divorced her husband. Last year, she became a permanent legal resident through VAWA.

"If I had known I had to pay this price, I would have stayed in Mexico," she said. "But everything has a price. And all of this has taught me how to defend myself, how to be who I am."

Contributing: Rupa Shenoy, Audra Martin, Julia Steinberger, Tamirra C. Stewart, Rachel Kanter and Cindy R. Barrymore helped research this article.

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Author:Kaneya, Rui
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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