Martinas Valentin, a soft-spoken, 48-year-old woman, resides in Corona with her eight children. Since she left her abusive husband six years ago, she no longer lives in fear of his temper. But she still carries the scars.
Valentin has a thin white mark on one arm from where her husband hit her with a machete back in their hometown of Puebla, Mexico. Once, he kicked her so hard that she suffered a miscarriage.
After the couple came to the United States, the abuse only got worse. Her husband raped her and made her sleep on a fire escape in the New Jersey winter for weeks at a time.
“I had no contact with anybody,” Valentin said. “He used that to his advantage. I didn’t know what to do.”
Victims of domestic abuse often find it hard to come forward. For undocumented immigrants like Valentin, the problem is compounded by a lack of knowledge about or access to services. And although legislation has been introduced to address the problem, many women still suffer in silence.
It took courage for Valentin to leave her husband and things haven’t been easy. Luckily, she had a sister in Corona, who was able to help her get a place to live. She found work cleaning houses in Brooklyn.
Although she has been in the United States for more than 20 years and 4 of her children were born here, Valentin is not a U.S. citizen.
She is working with her lawyer to get legal status under the Violence Against Women Act.
The legislation, first introduced in 1994 and renewed in 2000, allows battered immigrant women to apply for citizenship independently of their spouses and processes visas for victims of sexual trafficking and assault.
VAWA 2000 expired at the end of September. Since then, both the House and the Senate have approved a newly expanded bill. But because the House didn’t approve some of the provisions, which were passed without objection by the Senate, the legislation is pending, waiting for a conference committee to work out the differences.
New measures are designed to prevent the detention and deportation of abused immigrant women and make VAWA provisions more accessible to the immigrant community.
“This is a really vulnerable community,” said Carole Angel, staff attorney at Legal Momentum’s Immigrant Women’s Program in Washington, D.C. “So we’re trying to give them as many tools as they can have to protect themselves.”
Many victims, like Valentin, are unaware of the services available and are afraid to contact authorities because of the risk of deportation. “I didn’t want to cause trouble for myself or my children,” Valentin said.
Joe Polidoro, NYPD liaison between Queens North and the chief of the domestic violence department, calls this fear a misconception.
“We would help no matter what,” he said. Polidoro added that the police have been making efforts to combat domestic violence in immigrant communities through the introduction of multilingual hot lines and posters.
In Queens, the Borough President’s Office is making a concentrated effort to raise awareness of the issue among immigrant women. Catherine Moore, chair of the borough president’s task force against domestic violence, child maltreatment and elder abuse, said they hold monthly meetings with service providers and publish a directory of resources for victims that is available at local schools and libraries.
“The only way to help these women is to educate them,” Moore said. “Imagine being a mother who is thinking that she’s not only going to lose her children (by coming forward), but that she’s going to be deported. Well, that’s not true.”
Moore also recognizes the importance of economic assistance for undocumented immigrant women, as many depend on their spouses for support. “A lot of steps are involved,” she said, “but the biggest thing is to get the women the information and then to empower them so they can leave the situation.”
Ann Jarwin, founder and chairwoman of the Center for the Women of New York, which is located in Queens, believes the problem presents a big challenge here. The borough is the most diverse in the world, with immigrants, both legal and illegal, from over 100 countries.
“This is a very important issue among all people,” Jarwin said. “And the immigrant women have a particular problem. Sometimes the abuser will threaten to report them to the authorities. Sometimes the women come from a culture where it’s not acceptable to talk about abuse. The biggest challenge is enabling them to understand their rights.”
In addition to borough-wide efforts, such as the creation of a special court for victims of domestic violence, Jarwin said the Center works in a coalition with all the neighborhood groups, such as the Rainbow Center for Korean Women, to provide services to victims in their native tongue.
“We try not to reinvent the wheel,” Jarwin said. “We will help, but we don’t speak 110 languages. So we refer (the victims).”
One such neighborhood group is Latin Women in Action, a Corona-based advocacy organization. But Haydee Zambrana, the chief executive officer, says she isn’t always able to help. Five to ten people come to her organization for assistance with domestic violence issues every week. Those who are undocumented, once informed of their limited options, rarely come back.
“She can leave the home,” Zambrana said, “but how is she going to survive? Especially if she has children. I can’t tell her to leave no matter what. I do, but I know it’s not realistic. Most of the time, for it to be resolved, she has to have family members.”
Valentin’s family members gave her both the motivation and the resources to leave her husband. “My children were becoming traumatized by the violence,” she said. “My daughter, she was 17, she couldn’t eat because she was shaking.”
Valentin stayed with her niece in Corona before finding a place to live. Others find it too difficult to leave.
“They only do something when it’s the last resort,” Zambrana said. “When they say it’s me alive or me dead. And that’s why some of them end up dying.”