Immigrant women survive domestic abuse thanks to protection from a federal law

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SOCORRO, TX — Nestled on a dusty road in a small town of roughly 33,000 residents, sits a brightly colored hair salon tucked to the right side of a 7-Eleven. Bright red and royal blue stripes decorate the hair salon building, conveying a sense of patriotic awareness.

Inside the shop, 40-year-old Lizdemar Najera greets customers with a smile and a hug, offering a variety of hairstyles at low costs. Taped on one wall is a sign with her mantra:

“I am Lizdemar: I am brave, compassionate, humble, easy to teach, optimistic, conscious, I feel a genuine pride in my appearance and in my work.”

Lizdemar Najera, 40, mother of four was a victim of domestic abuse. (Marilyn Aleman/Borderzine.com)

Lizdemar Najera, 40, mother of four was a victim of domestic abuse. (Marilyn Aleman/Borderzine.com)

Najera’s sweet personality and attitude of tender loving care hide her once dark past. The mother of four was a victim of domestic abuse, not once but twice in both of her marriages. She refuses to see herself as a victim but as a strong-willed survivor that overcame adversity.

Najera was once one out of every four women in the U.S. who are in a relationship characterized by physical and emotional abuse. According to officials who work with domestic abuse victims, the sad reality is that the abuse happens every day and more than likely goes unreported.

“Right now we live in a period of domestic violence,” said Najera. “It doesn’t stop.”

Immigrant advocates say undocumented women are less likely than legal residents or citizens to report domestic abuse. The problem has become so prevalent that Congress in 1994 passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), in part to protect undocumented women who refuse to report abuse for fear of deportation.

A Pew Hispanic Research 2012 poll shows that 11.7 million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S., 47 percent of them women. Although it is difficult to quantify the prevalence of domestic violence among this vulnerable population, in 2011 some 9,209 immigrants petitioned for legal residency through VAWA. Some advocates say the number would be higher if there were more public knowledge about the law and greater enforcement by the government.

“It is a law that was really pushed by law enforcement officials,” said Katie Anita Hudak, executive director of Las Americas: Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. “They saw that within the immigrant community people were afraid to report issues of domestic violence and crime because they were afraid to go to the police thinking that they would report them to immigration.”

According to a 1998 study by the National Institute of Justice, 67 percent of law enforcement officials who participated in a national survey said that only 12 percent of recent immigrants are likely to report crimes for fear of immigration enforcement.

Undocumented immigrant women, with limited knowledge of English and U.S. laws and resources, often are at a higher risk of finding themselves in abusive relationships and unlikely to seek help if they are under the control of an abusive partner.

Heryca Serna, a part-time lecturer of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, interviewed 31 immigrant women and two immigrant men in the El Paso/Juarez region for a 2012 study that was part of her thesis, Domestic Violence, Border Control Measures & Its Effects on the Immigrant Population.

“They don’t know the laws, they don’t know the language, and so whatever they hear from la comadre or the neighbor, or whoever, they are going to believe it. You know they are not going to risk going out,” Serna said.

According to immigrant advocates, abusive husbands or boyfriends often threaten their partner with turning them over to immigration authorities because of their undocumented status. Sometimes the abuser will have legal status but refuses to apply for legal status for their undocumented partner to keep them dependent and in the relationship.

A research project in 1990 by a group of immigration researchers titled Dreams Lost, Dreams Found: Undocumented Women in the Land of Opportunity showed that out of 345 Latina women surveyed, 29 percent of them never sought any help from social services.

“By all rights that resident or citizen should have petitioned for that person to be here legally,” said Hudak. “But what often will happen is that the person who has status here kind of dangles that over the head of the person with undocumented status, or they keep [them]undocumented because it is part of the control.”

While outsiders often believe that victims of domestic violence should be able to identify signs of abuse and leave the relationship, immigrant women admit it is not that simple. Many rely on inconsistent or sporadic employment because of their undocumented status and are tied to their husbands or partners for economic support for them and their children

Social workers and researchers who work with battered women often rely on a model created by battered women in Minnesota called the “Power and Control Wheel.” Serna, who uses the wheel for her research, said domestic abuse is inconsistent and can begin or end anytime yet it does follow a pattern. The wheel shows how abusers often begin with emotional control, which can escalate to physical or sexual abuse. (Read more about the Power and Control Wheel here.)

Najera said she experienced this cycle of power and control when she arrived in the United States in 2001 from Nueva Casas Grandes, Chihuahua.

“Imagine coming into a country that is not yours with not knowing the language and not having papers,” she said. “And people discriminate against you for being who you are.”

Before immigrating here Najera married and became pregnant at age 14. At age 25, she divorced the abusive father of her two children. Three years later, after entering the U.S. illegally with her two children, she met and married another man who promised her a good life but began to abuse her.

She said he demanded that she keep to herself and work cleaning neighbors’ homes. The husband’s family also refused to allow her to enroll her children, Carlos, 14, and Luis-Angel, 10, in public school. After one year of marriage, she learned about the protections available to abused women under VAWA and petitioned for legal residency. A neighbor also encouraged her to send her children to school assuring her they would not be sent back to Mexico. Najera said she left her husband for good in 2002.

“I came into this country with grand illusions,” said Najera. “But in reality what I got was not really welcoming. Imagine coming into a country with two children that aren’t your husband’s and having my husband’s sister say I couldn’t put my kids in school because they didn’t have papers. I was like ‘what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do if I can’t put my kids into school?’”

Najera said women often stay in abusive relationships because of deeply ingrained cultural attitudes about marriage. “When you’re little they tell you that if you’re married, you’re married, and you have to stay with that person.”

Serna said abusers often “instill some kind of fear using several tactics… A lot of the information is not even true but the victim doesn’t know and so he uses it against her.”

According to experts, abusers also exercise constant control over the thoughts of their victims. As a result, the victim begins to see the abuse as “not that bad,” something this is known as cognitive distortion by psychologists.

Jennifer Eno-Louden, assistant professor of psychology at UTEP, says that because humans are social animals, the need for communication is essential and victims of abuse may compromise their beliefs for the sake of human interaction.

“The whole gist of this is that we need to have social interaction, that’s a real basic need for most people,” said Eno-Louden. “So above food, water and safety we need to be around other people and will often put up with a lot of dysfunction to maintain these relationships if the (only) option is to cut off the relationship and then not have the people in our lives.”

Cognitive distortion is often linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but can be helped by psychotherapy that can break a domestic violence victim’s negative thinking habit, experts say. Deciding to enter counseling is the hardest part of breaking the abuse cycle, Serna said.

“It’s about empowering them again and making them feel like they are of worth and they can do something in this world,” said Serna who has spent almost a decade working with victims of domestic abuse at the Center Against Family Violence, an El Paso shelter for abuse victims. “They don’t need anybody to make them feel bad or incomplete.”

Usually, abused women finally decide to seek outside help because they want to protect their children.

“You tend to hear a lot of (women) saying things such as ‘he can touch me but as soon as he touches my children he passed the line’ or ‘he can do whatever he wants to me, but with my children it’s a no,’” said Serna. “It takes seven to 10 (incidents of abuse) for a domestic violence victim to finally leave the relationship.”

Experts also say that children raised in an environment of domestic abuse are likely to continue the behavior as adults.

“That’s where we learn most of what we know – it’s by observing others,” said Eno-Louden. “For young boys they might be looking at the father to show them that this is how you treat women… young girls might see that the mother is putting up with abuse and that’s what you’re supposed to be like when you’re in an relationship.”

Najera said she finally realized she could no longer stay with her husband during a visit to a clinic to get her children vaccinated. She remembers seeing a pregnant young woman crying on the steps because she had nowhere to go and a flyer on the clinic doors with information about the VAWA program. She followed up.

“The process took six months,” said Najera.

Hudak, who has headed Las Americas since 2012, says the center has a steady caseload of about 160 persons in their Battered Women Immigrant Program. Their clients are prominently from Latin America.

Under the VAWA Texas provisions, if the victim is undocumented and married or in a long-term relationship they can petition for legal residency status. If the undocumented victim is not married, he or she can apply for a U-Visa that allows them to live and work in the U.S, according to Hudak. The victim can petition for legal status without the abuser knowing.

Not all victims of abuse are eligible however. For example, Hudak said, several of her clients were not given protection under VAWA because they had been deported in the past.

Victims who apply under VAWA must not have a criminal record and prove to the government that they married in good faith.

As for Najera, she said she intends to give back to the adopted country that offered her safety and protection. In 2005 she became a citizen. In addition to operating three beauty salons in El Paso, she helps the homeless sometimes offering them a spare bedroom in her beauty salon, volunteers at the El Paso County Sheriff’s department, advocates for the VAWA program, and works sometimes as a security guard

One day, she says, she aspires to be the mayor of her small town.

“A lot of people say to me ‘how do you do it?’” said Najera, whose four children range in age from 8 to 26.  “And I say because I can, because God is big and puts us in certain situations.”

For more information of VAWA eligibility and information seek the website below:

http://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/battered-spouse-children-parents

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The Power and Control Wheel

The Power and Control Wheel shows how an abuser uses eight tactics of emotional control before he can advance to physical or sexual abuse. The abuser may use more than one tactic at once, and all tactics do not involve physical touch to the victim.

“So of course in the first couple of months everything is perfect, everything is normal,” said Serna about the beginning of an abusive relationship. “It’s a dynamic that works in a cycle but it gets worse and worse, by the time a woman gets help, most of the time she has already experienced several episodes of physical and sexual abuse.”

If the cycle of abuse continues to escalate, the victim or even the abuser may die. A study by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene from 1995 to 2002 found that 51 percent of homicide victims in abusive relationships were foreign born while 45 percent were U.S. citizens.

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