A little-known law helps battered immigrants recapture their American dream.

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A little-known law helps battered immigrants recapture their American dream.

On a residential street in Richmond Heights, on a misty February day, someone heard a scream. A tall man was pushing a tiny blond woman in her 60s into the back seat of a black car.

Someone called 911, and police stopped the car. The woman spoke little English, but the man behind the wheel had a lot to say.

She's my wife, he explained. She's an illegal alien, and I was going to turn her in and have her deported. The man even produced a flier, which he'd apparently printed himself, with his wife's name and picture on it.

At the station, police found a Russian translator and heard the woman's story. She'd been married to the man for nine years, but left three months before because he was physically abusing her.

Since then, he'd been sending angry letters to her brother and sister, accusing them of harboring an illegal alien. That day, she went to the post office to call him. She had planned to ask him to stop harassing her family, but he didn't answer. As she walked back to her friend's house, he drove up, jumped out of his car, and grabbed her.

The woman had no passport, Social Security number, or green card. She told police she was afraid she'd be deported.

The police discovered that the man was wanted on a felony theft charge in Texas. They charged him with abduction and prepared to extradite him.

They also reported the woman to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. An agent there told her to come to the INS office in a few days to start deportation proceedings.

Today, the woman is still in the United States. A little-publicized law that protects immigrant victims of spousal abuse may help her escape the legal trap her husband set for her.

Until a few years ago, immigration law inadvertently gave many violent spouses a powerful weapon. Immigrants married to either American citizens or permanent residents can get a green card and live here permanently -- if their spouse files a petition on their behalf.

So abusers, holding their loved ones' futures in their hands, use the law to threaten and punish. If their spouses leave them, call police, or defy them in any way, they'll refuse to file for a green card. Or they'll threaten to withdraw the petition, not show up for an interview with the INS -- or even turn their spouses in as illegal aliens.

But now, if victims can show that their spouses have physically hurt them or inflicted extreme mental cruelty, they can petition for permanent residency on their own. The law helps both sexes, but the majority of victims are women.

Immigration attorneys have seen a steady stream of battered-spouse cases since the 1994 law took effect. But proving abuse is difficult, since many victims are afraid to go to hospitals or the police, and language barriers isolate them.

Immigrants feel even more trapped than battered American women do, says Charlene Williams, shelter director for the local Center for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. She says few immigrants come to her organization's shelters. Men from some countries "have been raised to believe there's a boss in the family, that they have a right to control their families. Many victims don't think they have a right to leave," she says.

Evanessa Cordero is the coordinator of the Hispanic Family Violence Prevention Program for the social-service agency El Centro in Lorain. Over the last eight years, she's seen about 15 illegals whose abusive husbands have used their immigration status to control them. As she's become more familiar with the law, she has helped five women file for green cards on their own. Before, "You tried what you could, but it wasn't as easy."

Last month, Cordero received two calls in one day from battered immigrants who read about her program in a church bulletin. One woman told her that, when she threatened to divorce her husband, "He threatened to keep the kids and deport her. He said, 'They'll take you back to the border.'"


Naira is trembling as she introduces herself in her lawyer's office. It's hard to think about what she went through, she says. Sitting in the lobby, waiting to tell her story, she's already nervous, and her head aches.

Her English is not bad, but she speaks mostly in Russian, through a translator. Sometimes she sighs and looks down at her lap, where she tugs and twists the strap of her purse. In other moments, she gestures angrily.

Naira is in her mid-20s, the mother of two children. She's Jewish, born in the former Soviet republic of Armenia. (Like the other women in this article, she asked for anonymity, fearing retaliation from her husband.)

When she was 16, her family became victims of Armenia's war with Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani attack destroyed her home. Afterward, her mother couldn't be found. She's still missing.

Wounded in the knee, Naira found herself in the hospital where her father, a doctor, had worked before joining the Armenian army. After she recovered, she had no place to go, so the doctors let her live at the hospital.

It was her only sanctuary. All her life, she says, she'd endured her neighbors' slurs and hatred of Jews. Many found the country's Jewish minority a convenient scapegoat for their suffering in the war. Naira says that, after the attack on her town, neighbors regularly spat in her face and told her to leave. Once, she says, she was severely beaten; her attackers warned they would kill her next time.

At the time, she was corresponding with an old family friend, a man a few years her senior who had moved to Cleveland. He invited her to come to America. She did. They started dating, then got engaged.

She thought him kind and nice-looking. "He was the first and only man I knew. I felt he was the one."

But two weeks after they were married, she says, he hit her for the first time. They were visiting another couple, and the woman called Naira into the kitchen. Naira's husband, enraged that she'd leave the room without his permission, hit her so hard that she saw stars.

"If I wasn't beaten one week, I was verbally abused," she says. "All the time, I had problems."

In 1996, a year into the marriage, while pregnant with her first child, Naira asked the U.S. government for political asylum. In an affidavit, she described herself as "happily married" to her "beloved husband." The contrast between those words and the home life she now describes would eventually hurt her legal case.

"At that time, I wrote the real truth. At that point, I loved him and was able to forgive everything -- even the bad stuff," she says. "I was always finding excuses for his behavior. I didn't realize [it would get] worse and worse.

"I always had hope he'd change for better. Hope dies last."

Naira's husband forbade her from leaving the apartment and making friends, she says. "Why should you have friends? I'm your friend," he'd say. Sometimes, he'd lock her in the apartment. She says his family knew when he abused her, because only then would he let her go shopping with his sister -- his unspoken way of apologizing.

Naira gave birth to two children -- first a daughter, then a son. She says her husband verbally abused them as well.

One night, she was standing by the stove as her husband sat at the table. He'd said something insulting to one of the children. "I remember I said, 'Shame on you. They are your kids. Why say something bad?' He was eating. The next thing I know, a knife was flying at me." The knife hit her in the thigh, she says. She was afraid to go to the hospital, so she stopped the bleeding herself.

On Christmas Day 1999, she says, she tried to convince her husband to let her buy new clothes for the kids. He launched into a rage.

Their 18-month-old son was crying. Naira says her husband grabbed the boy and threw him into the bathroom, then furiously pulled the door shut -- while her son hid behind it. Naira heard the boy scream and saw blood everywhere. The boy's finger was caught in the door.

She took him to the hospital. Medical records show that the boy's finger was almost severed, cut through the bone. Doctors reconnected it and wrote instructions in Russian for giving him three drugs. But now, Naira says, the tip of his finger has stopped growing. "He has half a finger. For what?"

For the first time, Naira says, she hated her husband. "At that point, I realized I can't change anything, [despite] all my love, all my desire to make it better."

But her husband kept reminding her that he held the key to her future in the U.S. Her immigration status was shaky, since Soviet Jews applying for asylum are rarely approved. "This was his main weapon: 'You are illegal. I'll take the kids from you.' He said always, 'If you do something wrong, I'll go to immigration, and they'll throw you out of here.'"

She wanted to stay in Cleveland, not only for herself and her kids, but because her father had followed her here and was very sick, being treated by doctors at University Hospitals and MetroHealth Medical Center.

"[I had] no language, friends, family, [or] knowledge of the law." Naira says she was afraid to call police, leave her husband, or stand up to him at all. She thought about suicide. "Thinking about my kids was the only reason I stay alive."

About a year ago, Naira says, her husband forbade her from seeing her father. It was the last straw. She called police, asked them to come to her house, then called her husband to say she was leaving.

Naira found a cheap apartment, got a job, and sought counseling. She also tried to get a green card as a battered spouse. But because her asylum case is pending, she had to petition an immigration judge, not the INS.

Her first hearing in February did not go well. She and her attorney brought medical records, plus affidavits from former landlords who said they'd seen Naira with bruises many times. Affidavits from her social worker stated that Naira had told her about her husband's abuse in detail, and that she was anxious and irritable, haunted by memories of what he'd done. The INS prosecutor said he would not object to Naira's battered spouse petition.

But when Naira testified, Judge Miriam Mills grilled her about the 1996 affidavit in which she claimed to be happily married, according to attorney Vania Stefanova.

Naira's social worker testified that abused spouses often have a love-hate relationship with their abusers and cover for them. It didn't help. Mills declared that she was ready to deny the petition, Stefanova says. Finally, Stefanova convinced the judge to postpone her decision until Naira could submit new evidence.

Naira's next hearing is set for later this month. Mills and the prosecutor were unavailable for comment; government rules prevent them from commenting on individual pending cases. Since Mills is moving to another court, another judge will probably hear the case.

A year after leaving, Naira still hasn't heard from her husband. "Now I'm strong enough. He knows if he comes, I'll call the police." But she and her kids still live with memories of his abuse.

She pulls a photograph out of her purse.

"This is my son. Look in his eyes," she says in English. Her son is standing in front of a TV with an Oakland Raiders shirt on. His blue eyes are open wide. He has a sad, scared look on his face. "There's a deepness in his eye," his mother says. "He's two and a half years old."

In a second picture, the boy and his sister are smiling. "I am glad they don't look like [my husband]."

She and her children don't have a lot of money. But their life is like "freedom after going out of jail," Naira says.

"Before, it's like I was a slave. Now I feel like a princess, like Cinderella."


Every year, about 2,700 immigrants petition the INS, trying to prove they've been abused. Fifteen INS staffers in a Vermont office work full-time on their requests. Most petitioners are spouses claiming they were victimized, but parents can also apply if their spouse abused their children, and abused kids under 21 can apply on their own. The INS approves 78 percent of the petitions, says spokeswoman Amy Otten.

Kyoko, a mother of three who was born in Japan, is halfway toward getting her green card. The INS recently certified her as a battered spouse, making her eligible to apply for permanent residency without a sponsor. Approval came even though some of the police reports in her petition, which documented her husband's violence, showed that she was occasionally violent as well.

"We both fight," admits Kyoko. "I did it too." But her husband was twice her size, and the reports show he did the most damage. In what Kyoko calls their worst fight, she says her husband pushed her during an argument. She pushed back, and he knocked her to the floor, kicked her in the chest, grabbed her by the neck, and threw her around. Police photographed large bruises on her arm and chest, but she did not press charges.

In another report, Kyoko, pregnant with her first child, told police her husband hit her and kicked her in the stomach after demanding that they divorce and that she get an abortion. Her husband denied the claim and said she had hit him, but Kyoko maintains she told the truth. He was charged with domestic violence, but she says she dropped that charge as well.

Kyoko says her husband's erratic work habits kept him from providing a stable home throughout their seven-year marriage. Several times, they were evicted for not paying the rent. She's gone without treatment for a dangerous thyroid disorder because she had no medical insurance. But when she asked her husband to apply for a green card for her, so she could work, he kept putting it off. When he finally applied, his check to the INS bounced. After that, she says, he was afraid he'd get in trouble if he contacted the agency again.

Halfway through their marriage, her husband became a born-again Christian, she says. He told her he'd apply for her green card -- if she would move to the East Coast so he could attend Bible college. Kyoko refused, worried he would run out of money, and they'd have no relatives there to take them in. Besides, "If God had touched him, why is he still hitting me?" she wrote in the affidavit she sent the INS.

She was a practicing Buddhist, but her husband forbade her to pray in their home, saying her religion came from the devil.

About a year ago, Kyoko says, her husband threatened to have her deported if she divorced him. "He promised my child, [who was] six years old: 'Your momma's going back home to Japan. That is my Valentine's Day present to your mommy, to call the INS and send her back to Japan . . . Don't worry about it. You going to miss Mommy for a little bit, but I give you a nice Christian mother.'"

Soon after, Kyoko moved out. She filed her abused-spouse petition with the INS and also filed for divorce, alleging "extreme cruelty." Her husband has denied that charge in court papers.


Immigration attorney Karen Meade says the INS requires a lot of documentation of abuse claims. Though the agency hasn't turned down any of her clients, it often sends them repeated requests for more documentation.

"I've had a couple of cases I turned away, because there just wasn't any physical evidence," she says.

Otten, the INS spokeswoman, says the agency often asks for more evidence because it wants to give women every possible chance to prove their abuse. "With this program specifically, we will go to much greater lengths to assist them . . . because they're in such a difficult position."

Having something on paper can make all the difference. Rosa, a Central American immigrant who separated from her husband after only a few months of marriage, recently got her abused-spouse petition approved and is now applying for permanent residency. She lived with her American husband for years and had a baby with him before they married.

A few months before the wedding, she says, she discovered he was seeing another woman. She repeatedly confronted him at the girlfriend's house, and police were occasionally called to the scene. A hospital report she submitted to the INS says that she threatened to kill herself and her child during an argument with her husband. She says she didn't mean it and was just trying to scare him.

Rosa and her husband finally married last spring. But two weeks later, she says, he was back with his girlfriend. Their arguments grew increasingly violent. Once, she says, he pushed her into a wall and choked her.

Last summer, she won a restraining order against him. The judge granted the order, based on two incidents in which Rosa's husband left severe bruises on her body. She filed her INS petition a few weeks later.

Another woman has had a much harder time with the INS. Marianna came to a western suburb of Cleveland from Eastern Europe five years ago to work as a nanny. But after several months, she says, the family she worked for fired her without explanation, leaving her out on the street.

A man she'd met in the neighborhood took her in. Within three months, she married him -- charmed, she says, by his kind heart. He got her a job at the restaurant where he worked.

Marianna slowly figured out that her husband had a drug problem. He would disappear for days and spend all of their money; some days, all she had to eat or drink was coffee and soup at work. She says he choked her, hit her in the face, and broke her teeth, pulled her earrings, grabbed her by her necklace, and hit her nose and eyes. She went to several shelters before leaving him for good.

But most of the abuse Marianna describes was not documented. When she applied to the INS, the agency kept asking for more proof. One letter notes that a police report she supplied doesn't describe her husband actually hitting her. The INS requested that she send affidavits relating his emotional cruelty instead.

The INS finally believed her story. But when she took the second step and applied for a green card, the INS said no, on the grounds that she misrepresented herself when she first went to the American consulate in her country for permission to enter the U.S. She had applied for a visitor's visa, meant for tourists, even though she planned to work as a nanny.

Marianna says that, at the time, she went to the consulate with a plane ticket and papers prepared by the Americans who hired her. She says she didn't speak English and didn't know what the papers said, and that no one questioned her. Meade, her attorney, has asked the INS to reconsider its decision, arguing that Marianna did not "willfully misrepresent" herself.

With documentation so important, Cleveland attorney David Leopold has joined a group of social workers, doctors, attorneys, and shelter workers who help abused women prove their claims. The group is also working to publicize the green-card provision at shelters. Part of a larger law addressing violence against women, the provision received little public attention when the law passed.

Leopold and other immigration attorneys are understanding of the INS's need to have claims documented.

"Any time you have a great law -- and this is a great law -- there's a lot of fraud involved," says attorney Margaret Wong. About 10 percent of the abuse stories she hears seem fishy. "People say, 'Oh, I'm seriously abused.' But how? 'He tells me I'm no good.' But how? 'Let me think.' The next time, they come in with all this stuff."

Leopold recently testified about the immigration law in a local domestic violence trial. The defendant claimed that his wife was exaggerating her accusations to help her green-card case. A jury found the man not guilty, and the couple has since reconciled.

But Leopold says fraud is rare. "I've seen very little abuse [of the law]."


Liza, the Ukrainian woman allegedly abducted by her husband in February, speaks quietly and matter-of-factly at first. But as she talks about the abuse she has suffered, her voice rises and her words speed up, leaving the translator behind. She grabs her blouse with her hand and snaps her head from side to side, pantomiming her husband's violence.

Eleven years ago, she left Ukraine for Israel, part of the great wave of Jewish emigrants fleeing anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union. Soon, she met her future husband, an American man who lived in her apartment complex. They were both divorced, and both had come to Israel alone.

They'd have coffee together in the morning, then meet up again after his work and her Hebrew classes. He brought her flowers, and they went to the beach together. "Not only me, but people around respected him very much," she says.

They got engaged and moved in together. Eight months later, on a romantic vacation to Canada, they were married.

But soon after the wedding, Liza discovered her husband had a drinking problem and a short temper. He called her stupid, threw the Russian food she'd cook in the garbage, and kept her from leaving their apartment to see friends. Sometimes, he'd shove her as he shouted. Once, she told him he had had too much to drink. He hit her in the head so hard, she says, that she's had a noise in her ears ever since.

Soon, he was hitting her in the face regularly. She told his friend. "I told him he's so abusive, I won't stand it. I'll get a divorce." The friend confronted her husband, who calmed down for a while.

Three years ago, Liza says, her husband decided to move back to the U.S. "At that time, we had a pretty good relationship, probably the best it ever was." She wanted to go with him, but was worried she might not be allowed to live in America.

"I love you, I want us to go together," she remembers him saying. He told her he'd make sure she got a green card. "I am an American citizen. It won't be a problem for you."

But when they moved to Houston, an immigration lawyer asked for $2,500 to process her application. Instead of paying, her husband stalled.

"Here in America, I was fully dependent on him," she says. She'd collected public assistance checks in Israel, but in Texas she had no money, and he insisted on carrying her passport and other papers.

He started yelling at her and hitting her again. When she asked about her green-card petition, he'd say, "Later, later." Finally, she says he told her, "If you ask me again, I won't do it at all, I'll just beat you."

Liza says her husband would often threaten to throw her out. Last year, he made her pack her bags and drove her to the airport. He ranted about how she didn't speak English well enough, that she cooked his fish wrong, that he was sick of her borscht. He told her to fly to Cleveland to live with her sister, who'd immigrated here a few years earlier. Then he broke down crying and drove her home.

Liza claims she discovered that her husband had moved to Israel to dodge child-support payments from a previous marriage, and that while they lived in Houston, he began receiving letters ordering him to pay. So the couple moved to the Cleveland area to live near Liza's sister and her brother, who had just moved to the U.S.

Here, Liza says, her husband hit her "very often, more often than in Houston. Maybe he was jealous of my brother and sister, [because] I had someone to speak to." He ordered her not to leave the apartment. If she didn't answer the phone when he called from work, he'd slap, hit, and choke her when he got home. "Every day when I was expecting him to come back from his job, I was scared: What will [happen] this time?" Several times, he threatened to push her out their seventh-story window.

Finally, in November, she left him. He threw a tantrum, she says, when she cut up some meat for dinner instead of leaving it for him to cut. He trashed the kitchen, throwing pans, knocking over chairs and a lamp -- and then ordered her to clean it up. She escaped to her sister's apartment instead.

Soon, her husband started calling the INS, reporting that she was an illegal alien. She consulted an immigration lawyer.

Then, in February, came the incident on the street and the abduction charge against her husband. With help from her attorney's office, Liza convinced an immigration officer not to start deportation proceedings, giving her time to file for a green card as an abused spouse.

Her husband was extradited to Houston, where he was sentenced to community service and three years probation on the felony theft charge. (It's unclear what he was accused of stealing; because of flooding in Houston, the district attorney's office was unable look up its old files.) Meanwhile, he's wanted in Cuyahoga County; a grand jury has indicted him in the abduction case.

Liza is waiting for word on her petition, seeing a counselor in a family violence program, and moving around between family and friends. "I just started finding peace and understanding, support and affection [from] my family, brother and sister, and tremendous help from the counseling," she said in an affidavit filed with the INS. "I have nothing and no one in Ukraine and Israel."

If she gets a green card, Liza says, she may seek a divorce. "I don't want to meet him again," she says of her husband. "I'm very happy I got rid of him."

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