Politics

Why Immigrants Need the Violence Against Women Act

Immigration status can trap women in abusive relationships.

A collage of a woman trapped behind the bars of the American flag with a passport and green card.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Ana María Toledo Cáceres landed in Las Vegas on a sweltering September day in 2014. In the car with her fiancé, en route to her new home in Utah, the 49-year-old Guatemalan tried to take in the stark, red rock landscape. Cáceres had been sad to leave her two daughters behind in Guatemala City, but now she felt excited and ready to marry the man she loved. The wedding was scheduled for the following day—the same date she had agreed to be his girlfriend four years prior.

Cáceres’ fiancé was a gray-haired and stout Guatemalan man who had moved to the U.S. as a Mormon missionary and become a citizen. The two met in their home country in 2009 when he was back on a visit. Cáceres was skeptical of his advances at first, but she came to cherish him as, for months, they exchanged long emails about the Bible, hobbies, and goals for the future.

“Although I’m using my head, I’m also giving my heart permission,” she wrote to him then.

The marriage proposal came soon after, and he sponsored her to come to the United States on a fiancé visa. In her suitcase, Cáceres packed a formal, three-piece ivory garment to pair with pearl earrings and a matching necklace.

The wedding ceremony took place in a garden for about 20 people, all strangers sloppily dressed in shorts and sandals. But on the top of the wedding cake was a comforting reminder, a card with a saying the couple shared: “You’re not perfect but you’re perfect for me.”

That same night, Cáceres’ new husband took her to a hotel in Mesquite, a one-hour drive from Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park, for their honeymoon. Recently, Cáceres sobbed as she recalled the small, suffocating room with the shut blinds. She remembered the rudeness of her husband’s touch and not being able to move, breathless under his body, while he forced her to have sex.

“I just wanted him to be outside of me,” Cáceres said. “It was maybe a few minutes, but for me, it was forever.”

Feeling guilty and ashamed, Cáceres would later attempt to take her own life. “I didn’t want to accept what had happened to me,” she said. “I didn’t want to say these hard words that put us in the statistics: I was raped.”

Like many immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, Cáceres felt trapped. Her immigration status prevented her from getting a driver’s license or a job, and she didn’t speak English. Living in a remote condo on the top of a hill in St. George, a gateway town to Utah’s national parks, where the closest bus stop was a 20-minute walk away, she relied on her husband to be her translator, driver, and provider.

As the foreign spouse of a U.S. citizen, Cáceres was eligible to apply for a green card and eventually for citizenship. But her husband refused to file the joint application. Instead, less than a month into their marriage, he asked for a divorce and tricked Cáceres into believing her only options were going back to Guatemala voluntarily or facing deportation.

It isn’t uncommon for abusers to use their victims’ immigration status as a tool of control if they attempt to leave. Often, women like Cáceres come from cultures where domestic violence is perceived as a private matter and they fear the reaction of family members if they were to go back to their home countries. Unaware of their rights or the range of services available to them in the U.S., victims end up staying in abusive homes.

Enacted in 1994 and reauthorized three times since, the Violence Against Women Act opened up legal avenues for immigrant victims of crimes to adjust their immigration status to become permanent residents. For the battered spouses of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, it meant the possibility to remain legally in the country without depending on the abuser by submitting a self-petition.

Without legal counseling, Cáceres learned about VAWA through her own research and filed a self-petition, receiving a green card in May 2017. In the fiscal year 2017, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the government agency in charge of granting visas and other immigration benefits, approved more than 3,500 applications from foreign victims of spousal abuse like Cáceres.

VAWA was set to expire on Sep. 30, but a stopgap spending bill has guaranteed an extension through Dec. 7. Bipartisan support in Congress for a long-term reauthorization, however, has yet to be reached. The bill introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in July to reauthorize VAWA for another five years has only been co-sponsored by Democrats. And while 46 House Republicans signed a letter urging a bipartisan reauthorization of VAWA before the September deadline, a group led by Rep. Elise Stefanik pushed for a six-month extension of the legislation to allow time for more negotiations. The move was received with disapproval by the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who criticized “the continued refusal over many years of House Republicans to extend VAWA’s critical protections to include vulnerable communities, particularly Native American, immigrant and LGBTQ communities.”

When Nela Kalpic, a native of Belgrade, Serbia, came to the United States, she was seeking freedom from more than a decade of abuse. While living between Egypt and Kuwait, Kalpic’s Egyptian husband routinely assaulted her: He hit her with a belt, locked her inside the house for an entire week, and punched her as she curled up in a ball. Kalpic couldn’t drive or go out by herself.

“I couldn’t call the police,” Kalpic said. “They would tell me, ‘Deal with your husband,’ or tell him I wasn’t being obedient.”

In 2013, the couple was in Egypt, and Kalpic convinced her husband to seek asylum in the United States, claiming that the widespread persecution of Coptic Christians in the country threatened their safety. They arrived in New York City on tourist visas and were granted asylum that New Year’s Eve.

But her husband never changed. He kept all the documents she needed for a green card application and repeatedly attempted to sabotage her jobs, first as a receptionist at a salon and then at a Pottery Barn store, according to character references written by friends and colleagues in support of Kalpic’s custody rights of her three sons.

“Are you going to be out by four or what,” he texted her one day in 2014.

“You know I finish at 6:30,” Kalpic replied.

“Ok. I’ll be out at four and I want you out or you know what will happen.”

When her colleagues asked her if she wanted to call the police, Kalpic refused. She didn’t trust the system would be on her side. “I was so used to being dismissed by everyone,” she said.

Reaching out to immigrant victims of crimes has become increasingly challenging in face of the adverse environment for survivors reported around the country. Still, advocacy groups and service providers remain hopeful that anti-immigration rhetoric won’t get in the way of Congress reauthorizing VAWA, a crucial tool to help victims of abuse.

“VAWA has been instrumental in highlighting issues that immigrants, particularly women, who experience domestic violence and sexual assault face, and it’s a critical component for those working in the field,” said Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

According to a recent report to Congress, VAWA grantees served, on average, 17,812 immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers for every six-month period between July 2013 and June 2015.

Fear of deportation is not the only factor keeping immigrant women from escaping domestic violence. Even for those lawfully present in the country like Kalpic, language barriers, economic instability, and lack of familiarity with the legal system contribute to the perpetuation of abuse.

Victims are often unable to provide for themselves and their children, and have few social support systems in place. Through funding from VAWA, law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, and community-based organizations can become their lifeline.

Even though Kalpic spoke English and was financially supported by her mother, for a period, she was out of a job and getting by on food stamps. She received a protective order against her husband, but text and Facebook messages provided by Kalpic show that he violated it multiple times over the years, often using their sons as mediators to get in touch with her.

In a letter of support to Kalpic, a friend wrote: “I have never seen a woman that cared more about her children than her. I often asked her why she wouldn’t leave him and it was always the same answer: ‘If I do he will take my children away from me.’ ”

It took Kalpic more than a year of being in the U.S. to leave what, in one court document, she called a “violent prison I’d been locked in for nearly 14 years.” With a driver’s license that was only a few weeks old, she drove 1,200 miles from North Carolina, where they lived, to Madison, Wisconsin, with her sons.

There, Kalpic connected for the first time with the Domestic Abuse Intervention Services in Dane County, a domestic violence organization that receives grants from VAWA.

Following the traumatic honeymoon and a divorce, Cáceres had nowhere to go. Looking back, she describes herself during that period as being completely deprived of freewill. “All the time I was with him I felt in the wrong place, in somebody else’s story,” she said.

Cáceres was sent to live with her ex-husband’s family, who, she says, rationed her food and asked her abuser for money in return for hosting her. Eventually, with the help of a couple from a church in the farming town of Spring City, Utah, Cáceres moved to the the New Horizons Crisis Center, the only organization providing emergency shelter and social services to victims of domestic violence, rape, or sexual assault in a 13,000-square-mile area encompassing five rural counties of central Utah.

“It was like a little light in the darkness,” she said.

Between the shelter and transitional housing, Cáceres remained under New Horizons’ roof for almost two years as she got back on her feet. There, she studied English and received counseling. And for the first time, she fully understood she had been a victim of marital rape.

At the time, the organization didn’t have a bilingual advocate for lack of funding, so when a position opened up in 2016, Cáceres was the perfect fit. Having navigated the hurdles of the legal system in her own case, Cáceres, as an advocate, was able to share the knowledge she wishes she had had two years earlier, as a victim.

Since then, she has assisted 55 immigrant victims of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault across Utah. She has referred victims to immigration lawyers, helped them with paperwork, and accompanied them to medical appointments. And as a result of Cáceres’ outreach to the statewide domestic violence coalitions, farm owners, and churches, more immigrant clients started to come to the shelter.

According to executive director Debbie Mayo, New Horizons used to serve 10 to 20 Hispanic clients per year. After Cáceres joined their efforts, the number jumped to about 20 people every month. “It was like a snowball effect,” Mayo said.

Now, Cáceres is taking on a new role as a high school teacher of Spanish and English in Utah, and she’ll be applying for her U.S. citizenship in 2020. Even as a legal permanent resident, she feels insecure about her status. Cáceres hasn’t seen her two daughters, who are 26 and 23 and back in Guatemala, in four years because she fears leaving the country and being unable to return.

“I was given back my life,” Cáceres said about VAWA and the ability to stay in the U.S. “Congress needs to be conscious that we need these opportunities.”

For Erika George, a law professor at the University of Utah who leads the Migrant Women Project and recently conducted a study about the barriers migrant women face when trying to access legal and social services, VAWA sends a message that these women’s lives matter.

“We’ve created structural conditions that leave women unprotected and signal to them that they should continue to suffer in silence because they won’t be protected,” George said. “Laws tell us what we value as a society, and if we don’t have VAWA in place, we’ve failed in our responsibilities to recognize social equality and the role gender violence plays.”

Like Cáceres, Kalpic has also used her experience to help other victims in similar situations. She is active at a statewide policymaking level with the Wisconsin Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse and the End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin coalition, a VAWA grantee. Kalpic also assists the local organization where she once sought help in training new advocates and engaging the community in discussions about domestic violence prevention.

“I want to make sure they have a perspective from someone who didn’t grow up in the United States,” Kalpic said. “How do we include women who don’t have all the tools in their box that those who were born and raised here have?”

For immigrant women, leaving an abusive relationship might not always feel like a choice. But the ability to gain lawful status, access counseling and legal assistance, and rely on a criminal justice system with the resources to protect them is nothing short of a pathway to safety and autonomy.

Last October, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker presented Kalpic with the Courage Award, which acknowledges outstanding achievements in domestic abuse issues.

“Every day we have to make sure that no voice is left behind,” she said in her acceptance speech. “We’re everywhere. Believe us. Don’t doubt us. It takes strength we don’t even know we have to seek help.”

At times, Kalpic still worries that her ex-husband could try to take her sons back to Egypt, where she would have no rights. But when she walks in the State Capitol, she’s reminded that it hasn’t all been in vain.

“Here, when you decide that you want to do something and you go for it, you can still achieve it,” Kalpic said. “And I hope we never lose that.”