Life in the Shadows
Stories of domestic violence and sexual assault on undocumented immigrant women tell of a deep-seated problem in the United States
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*Author’s note: Italicized portions are based on case studies from victim advocate counselors. Names have been changed to protect the persons involved.
Marisa Raygoza let out a heavy sigh.
“This is a very sad topic.” She shook her head.
Raygoza, the end-of-life coordinator at El Comite in Longmont, Colorado, sat for a minute with her face propped in her palm.
“So many of our women…I’m sorry.”
She paused as her voice broke, reached across the desk for a tissue, dabbed at her eyes under her glasses.
“They’re hidden. They’re in the shadows. They’re in fear. They’re nobodies.”
In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated that there were roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., 51 percent of whom are women. Most hail from Mexico and Latin America. One in six Latina women survive rape, attempted rape and sexual assault, while rates of domestic violence are even higher.
Studies provide a murky picture, but most estimates put the number at anywhere from one-quarter to nearly half of Latina women who have experienced domestic violence. Accurate statistics are scarce because Latinas often don’t report domestic violence. Undocumented women (and men) often avoid self-identification for fear of deportation.
“Because I am a woman, I do fear more for the women,” Raygoza said. “You think about how they’ve been treated. What has their life been like? We’re talking 15-20 years, most of these people have been here that long now, and in the shadows.”
‘This one is a difficult one’
Rosa Murillo is a victim advocate for the Boulder County District Attorney. She’s heard many stories of domestic violence, but still some stand out more than others.
“This one is a difficult one,” Murillo prefaced.
Juan and Maria were from Mexico. They immigrated to the U.S. and both of their kids were born here. They lived in Lafayette. They had a couple of domestic violence incidents, where Maria would report but then later deny that anything had happened. She would recant for the same reasons every time — they were both undocumented. She had contacted Murillo previously concerning domestic abuse, but continuously recanted out of fear.
Maria didn’t have any family here. She wasn’t close to her mother, so she was in the U.S. by herself with her husband. Juan had a couple uncles and a brother in the U.S., so all the relatives she had were his family.
At one point Maria decided to leave Juan. She was on her own, but doing well with her children. Juan continued to harass her and look for her. She got a car. She got a job at Wendy’s and lived in a small trailer with the kids. She knew she didn’t want to go back to him.
A few months later, Maria began dating a man who was very helpful and supportive.
One evening they went to a dance, where Maria had something to drink. Her boyfriend drove them home.
Juan and his brother came looking for them. They drove to the boyfriend’s home. They stayed in their car and waited for Maria and her boyfriend to come home.
When the couple arrived, Juan immediately went to the driver’s side, thinking that she was driving. Because she hardly ever drank, she was always the designated driver. Juan went to driver’s side of the car and opened the door, and when the boyfriend looked outside, Juan hit him on the head with a bat, breaking the boyfriend’s skull.
Juan’s brother grabbed Maria, pulled her out of the car and pushed her around. Juan came around to the passenger side. He balled his right hand into a fist and punched Maria in the forehead.
Maria came into Murillo’s office the next day.
“I’ve had it,” she told Murillo.
Maria had bruising all around her eyes. Both of her eyes were completely bloodshot, one was swollen shut.
Murillo spent eight hours with Maria that day taking statements and translating for her. Juan his brother were immediately arrested. Maria went to the court hearings, which is unusual for someone who has been assaulted that badly. Usually people who come to the hearings are still supportive of the individual, but Maria knew she didn’t want anything to do with him. Still, she felt a sense of remorse. She cared so much for him. She would bring the kids to the courtroom. Even though Juan almost killed her, Maria was still emotionally involved.
Rosa Murillo, victim advocate for the Boulder County district attorney
‘The vast majority don’t call police’
Exploitation of undocumented immigrants is a pervasive issue. They often are the victims of crime, theft and fraud, in addition to sexual crime.
“One of the scary things about American history is we’ve always had an underclass,” said Stan Garnett, Boulder County’s district attorney. “When you have an underclass, it’s dangerous for lots of reasons, and one of the reasons it concerns law enforcement is because the bad guys think they can take advantage of the underclass and nobody will do anything.”
Crimes against undocumented immigrants are vastly underreported, and shame surrounding domestic violence and sexual assault compounds this silence.
“The vast majority of people don’t call police,” said Agueda Morgan, director of programs at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Local police departments have no jurisdiction regarding federal immigration policy, and cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials has not always been positive. Federal immigration agents are unlikely to travel to detain and deport someone, especially for misdemeanors and lesser crimes. Despite this, any sort of involvement with law enforcement and police is still avoided at nearly all costs. “They think ‘I’m putting myself into the mouth of the wolf, so why would I do that?’” Morgan said.
The fear and distrust of law enforcement runs deep in the immigrant community.
“There’s a lot of what-ifs and faith or lack thereof in the system, because they’ve heard it, they’ve seen it,” said Carmen Mireles, operations director of El Comite. In cases of domestic violence, especially instances where victims may defend themselves against their abuser and cause bodily harm such as a scratch or bruise, the victim may actually be the one arrested by a responding officer. These victim advocates are then sometimes arrested and even deported.
Immigrant women who experience domestic violence are also at risk for being sexually harassed by their employers or coworkers. A 2009 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 77 percent of Latina women surveyed felt that sexual harassment was a major issue in the workplace.
‘She would come in and literally shake’
In 2012, Garnett prosecuted a case against an employer who repeatedly raped and assaulted an undocumented employee, threatening to call immigration regarding her status. The woman, who was from El Salvador, eventually sought help from Garnett’s office through local services.
“She’s such an amazing person, but her level of fear was so intense. She would come in and literally shake,” victim advocate Murillo recalled.
That fear began on the job, where she worked for a Longmont-based janitorial service and the man who owned it.
While Cecilia cleaned the bathrooms in restaurants in downtown Boulder, the owner would come behind her and force himself into her. This happened many times.
One time, Cecilia tried to tell the owner she was on her period, but it didn’t matter to him, he still went ahead and raped her.
She first told her boyfriend that her employer was being inappropriate, touching her and making her do sexual things. He didn’t believe her.
So one day Cecilia took her cellphone and recorded him asking her for sexual favors. She showed the boyfriend. A few weeks later, she was at a Latin store in her neighborhood. She lost it at the store. She broke down, sobbing and crying.
An employee from the store asked Cecilia what was wrong, and she told him “My employer has been assaulting me.”
He helped get her in contact with Mental Health Partners (a Boulder nonprofit providing crisis services) and that’s how she finally reported it. Prior to that day, she was so afraid of what might happen to her that she had no intention of reporting.
The owner of the cleaning service who assaulted Cecilia was convicted of second degree assault and sentenced to 2 years of work release. He was also sentenced to ten years of sex offender intensive probation.
Cecilia had separated from an abusive husband when she left El Salvador. When she left she had no choice but to leave her three kids.
During the proceedings, one of her daughters was sexually assaulted by a gang in El Salvador. She heard about that and she wanted to leave. ‘I have to leave, I can’t stay,’ she said.
The counselors were able to talk to her and convince her to stay, and see if she could apply for a visa for her kids. She got a U-visa with the help of immigration legal services. It included her kids because they were at risk in El Salvador.
In Hispanic communities, cultural aspects add a layer of difficulty in the reporting process. Shame and silence surrounding sexual assault and domestic violence prevent reporting. “Culturally it’s not something that we talk about. It’s not acceptable. You don’t talk about it, you don’t talk about what goes on at home,” Mireles said.
One of the most significant values in Latino culture is the emphasis and importance of family structure. An individual’s decision to report domestic violence may create backlash from family members, and the fault may be on the victim for disrupting the family, not the abuser.
“The culture, their religion, they’re told that this is the way the life is, that they are to put up with this stuff,” Mireya Rios, a victim advocate for the Boulder County district attorney’s office said. “Their role is to be by that person, that’s how they’ve seen their parents grow up and that’s how they should grow up.”
‘Who else is being abused?’
Family structure can also create problems if abuse is occurring inside the home.
“Once you start peeling away layers: Who else is being abused? Or who else knows and isn’t saying anything, isn’t supporting the victim?” said Kat Bradley-Bennett, programs director at El Comite.
This family was very close, a very tight knit family. The uncle of the family was someone who everybody looked up to. They respected him. He was a religious man, very involved with his church. He was the person they could trust to go to with any problems. He immigrated into the U.S. with his family, and he was the only one who was documented. He was their main support, the person who was going to help them get a job and try to move on.
He and his family were very welcoming to other members of their family, some of them undocumented. He took advantage of the situation.
The rest of his family came to the U.S. and went to live with him. He took advantage of the female relatives who came into the home. Three older women in their 30s eventually came forward and said he molested them. One of the nieces was 11 years old at the time.
During Christmas one year, he molested his 11-year-old niece. She didn’t tell any adults. She told the other little kids that her uncle had been touching her. Two years later, she disclosed to one of her teachers at school that she had been molested. One of the older girls, whom he also molested, had not told anyone. He was prosecuted on multiple counts and the case went to trial.
The young girl who had been molested told her cousin, because she knew she would believe her, but she didn’t think anyone else would believe what she had been through.
His youngest niece testified against him during the trial. Her mother had also been a victim and testified as well. A lot of family members were in court when she testified, and none of them knew what had been happening for years, even though multiple women in the family had been forced to endure his behavior.
No one wanted to talk about it. Everyone heard rumors, but because he was such an amazing person and always willing to help his family, they didn’t believe the rumors. He’s now serving 16 years in prison.
The girls and women felt like their uncle controlled their lives, that he was more powerful than they were.
“Usually immigrant victims see people that are documented as someone with more authority. They have so much more than you do, they have all this power, they can call immigration on you,” Murillo said.
Many women may choose to survive abuse because knowledge about options for reporting and resources are minimal, and the report may negatively impact members of their family and their children. Even after reporting, however, a lot of survivors of domestic abuse recant.
“No one’s ever ready to leave until they’re ready to leave,” Mireles said. Survivors are often unaware of local resources available to them, such as counseling services, job and housing placement, and language services designed to help them.
Reporting domestic and sexual violence is extremely difficult for any individual, but lack of bilingual and bicultural resources make reporting even harder. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime, this can cause secondary victimization for a child or family member translating for a victim. Spanish may also be a second language for some immigrants coming from certain parts of Mexico and Latin America where the indigenous language is their mother tongue.
Defining and understanding abuse, consent and aspects of a healthy partnership are also complex aspects of domestic violence. “In the Latino community, a woman has to sexually gratify her husband whether she wants to or not. She doesn’t have a right to say no,” Morgan said.
Women also may not know about laws designed to protect them, such as those provided by the Violence Against Women Act. U-visas are available for individuals who are the victim of a qualifying crime, such as domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, stalking and trafficking. Other qualifying criminal activities are included for eligibility, but the U-visa is designed to encourage individuals to report instances of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Only 10,000 U-visas are provided at a national level annually. According to immigration attorney Karina Arreola, the application year begins in October, and in the past few years the cap has been met by December. The application must be signed and approved, usually by a chief of police or another designated official, yet political backlash can impede this approval. Departments are under no obligation to sign.
If these officials are part of a non-immigrant friendly community or up for re-election, this can affect policies that make it difficult for visa approval. In addition to this, the entire process can take up to seven years for approval. At present, approximately 64,000 applications for U-visas are backlogged awaiting review.
In Colorado, the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services run programs focused on sexual assault and domestic violence, collecting data and publishing it annually.
Service providers such as the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA) are required to provide data to these agencies in order to fulfill grant requirements, but aggregate totals for the state are not being tracked and published. The Department of Justice in other states, like California, maintain databases and collect incident-based data to gain a better understanding of the scope and prevalence of this type of violence.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that between 45,000 – 50,000 individuals, primarily women and children, are trafficked into the U.S. as sex slaves annually. A separate T-visa exists for survivors of trafficking and although there are 5,000 available per year, as of January 2009 only 2,000 have been issued.
“The subject is enormous. Think of it like an onion, it’s immigration law and policy but the victimization is just one layer,” Morgan explained. “The heart of it is power and control, having that power to control someone else and oppress and manipulate.”