Undocumented and Abused: One Woman’s Story

Dec. 7, 2012 / By

When Ana Del Valle* arrived to the United States from Morelos, Mexico in the late 1980s to reunite with her husband in Los Angeles, she left behind everything and everyone she had known: her daughter, her sisters, her mother, and her country.

For six years thereafter she endured the physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at the hands of her partner. At one of their lowest points, he threatened her with a firearm. Desperate to get away from him, she thought her only way out was to commit suicide.

Ana felt there was nowhere for her turn, especially because she was undocumented. Her husband constantly threatened to turn her over to the police. As a legal permanent resident, he refused to start a petition with immigration services to get her permanent legal residence status.

“He did not want to help me. He would tell me, you are not going to work. You’re only good to be at home. That I was never going to need papers,” Ana said.

It was not only her husband that used her undocumented immigration status as a tool of control and exploitation. In 1995 she took the daunting decision to escape that abusive relationship and arrived to Chicago without knowing a single soul. While living there the supervisor in charge of the warehouse she worked at used this same threat to exploit undocumented workers.

“I felt like a slave. I was locked up more than eight hours a day along with 28 other women and 7 men,” Ana said. “There was no food and no water and they were forcing us to work this way. I wanted to disappear. I finally told him I would call the police because there was a pregnant lady working.”

The threat of deportation is hard to ignore in cases such as Ana where the ability to abuse and exploit women in their homes and at work arises from their immigration status. According to Safe Harbor, a nonprofit group that works with domestic violence survivors, a large percentage of undocumented female immigrants consider the fear of deportation as a primary barrier to seeking help from service agencies.

A woman is physically abused every nine seconds in the United States, according to the FBI. For unodcumented women like Ana, who face additional fears of deportation, domestic violence can be even more isolating.

However, one thing did work in her favor. During her healing process Ana applied to a self-petitioning process mandated by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) created in 1994. Today, that law is under threat.

VAWA celebrated its 18th anniversary this past September with a Congress that is divided on whether to reauthorize it while leaving intact this self-petitioning benefit to undocumented immigrants.

As someone who was married to a legal permanent resident Ana qualified for a five-year work permit in 2005 and has being a legal permanent resident for the past two years and a half. But not many undocumented survivors of domestic violence know about it and continue to not report instances.

Although VAWA contains multiple other provisions including housing and employment protections to women experiencing domestic violence regardless of immigration status, the two chambers tried to reauthorize it this past April with little success. Now that the lame duck session is in full swing Congress has a second shot at reauthorizing it before they go to winter recess.

“There are folks who feel like VAWA is being abused,” explains Sotivier Sim, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who covers many cases in Long Beach. “The more conservative folks are trying to add extra requirements so they are making it harder.”

“When I speak, I speak on behalf of my family and other families,” Ana said. “We need a new immigration law. We need support and we need our kids to go to college. Some parents stay quiet because of our immigration status. I was one of them. And now that I have documents, why am I going to stay quiet?”

But as the National Task Force to end Sexual and Domestic Violence against Women explains in its website, the rates of approval for VAWA self-petitions are low compared to other kinds of petitions rankings. Out of seventy-three types of petitions handled by the Unites States Customs and Immigration Services, VAWA ranks at number 58.

“It’s bad policy to get rid of,” says Sim, who works with large Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander monolingual communities in Long Beach.

For Ana, a long-term Long Beach resident, going through her healing process not only provided her and her daughter with legal permanent status and the opportunity to become United States citizens in the future. It also gave her the opportunity to be with her family without the threat of deportation.

But most importantly it gave her the confidence to speak up she.

“When I speak, I speak on behalf of my family and other families,” Ana said. “We need a new immigration law. We need support and we need our kids to go to college. Some parents stay quiet because of our immigration status. I was one of them. And now that I have documents, why am I going to stay quiet?”


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Diana Cardenas

Diana is proud to call Mexico City the place she was born and raised in. At five she reunited with her mother and moved to Torrance where she has lived for the past 22 years with her two younger sisters, mother, and stepfather. Right before turning 21 she started to discover the wonders and challenges of Long Beach as a transfer student to CSULB and fell in love with all of it. It was there where she first started to come to terms with her undocumented identity in a community of students and supporters. This not only helped her understand herself better but also the world around her and the multiple injustices that go on. As Audre Lorde, one of her favorite feminist writers, once said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” This is a mantra she lives by. She graduated with a double major in Sociology and Chican@/Latin@ Studies and continues doing advocacy work in Long Beach.