News

Over 35 Women Flee Violent Homes Thanks to Local Group

Life After U Visa: Tahirih Justice Center Client Opens Up

More than 35 abused female clients of the Falls Church-based Tahirih Justice Center will spend their Thanksgiving giving thanks for what many consider entitlements — driver’s licenses, social security numbers, the freedom to look for legal work and, most of all, the ability to return home without having to worry whether or not any given night will be the night their boyfriend throws the punch that finally takes their life.IMG_3571

 

Life After U Visa: Tahirih Justice Center Client Opens Up

More than 35 abused female clients of the Falls Church-based Tahirih Justice Center will spend their Thanksgiving giving thanks for what many consider entitlements — driver’s licenses, social security numbers, the freedom to look for legal work and, most of all, the ability to return home without having to worry whether or not any given night will be the night their boyfriend throws the punch that finally takes their life.

IMG_3571

STAFF ATTORNEY for Tahirih Justice Center (TJC), Natalie Nanasi, has worked to get 13 of her clients approved for U visas, often helping them flee deadly living situations. (Photo: News-Press)

The U visa, which gives immigrant victims of domestic violence temporary legal status and work eligibility in the U.S. for four years, was originally granted to 12 Tahirih Justice Center (TJC) clients last August, after nine years of government delays. Since then, more than 20 additional TJC-assisted women have been approved.

“So many of our clients have waited so long, literally upwards of five years, for this status,” TJC Staff Attorney Natalie Nanasi, J.D. told the News-Press.

As part of the Victims and Trafficking Violence Protection Act established in 2000, the U visa has allowed immigrant women left unprotected by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to seek safety in the U.S. Until then, VAWA only protected spouses of either U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents. Abused spouses of undocumented immigrants, romantic and domestic partners were disregarded under the act.

“It was this disparity where victims of domestic violence — the same equal violence — who didn’t happen to marry their boyfriend or a guy who was a citizen were ignored,” said Nanasi, who’s just one of many faces at TJC lending pro bono services to clients, including legal, social and medical.

Under the terms of the U visa, the victim must cooperate with law enforcement in the prosecution of the perpetrator. If a victim’s fear of coming forward inhibits them from cooperating, their case will be dropped.

“There’s still an issue of trust between law enforcement and the immigrant community, a fear and anxiety of deportation from reporting a crime,” said Nanasi.

Not only must victims cooperate, but they must show proof with a form signed by a “head of agency,” i.e. a chief of police or someone designated to sign.

Nanasi said most people know very little about the U visa, leaving even members of law enforcement hesitant to get involved on paper.

“I think the larger issue is that there hasn’t been a lot of clarity as to what the form is. It doesn’t mean that they’re sponsoring someone’s immigration status and that if they sign, that person automatically becomes a citizen. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions,” said Nanasi.

She hopes TJC’s advocacy work will get a system in place through the Department of Homeland Security to not only better educate law enforcement about the U visa, but also push for implementation of a more timely way to obtain signatures for clients, many of whom have already been waiting for years, some homeless.

“I have clients who shelter-hop all the time because some places have a three-month stay limit. And they’ve been doing this for five years,” said Nanasi. “But with obtaining a U visa, there comes a certain weight that is lifted. There is a smile. There is something in their step, in their aura, that really makes them totally different people.”

Sylvia Thompson (a pseudonym), 32, of Alexandria was one of those clients smiling big after being approved a month and a half ago.

In 2000, she met her husband in Peru. They had been dating for only two months when he left for the U.S. to find work. Thompson discovered she was pregnant upon his departure, and though he was happy to hear the news, his possessive nature began to surface. He demanded to know where Thompson was at all times, eventually forbidding her from working.

He returned to Peru four months later. The emotional abuse from her husband turned physical when Thompson was pregnant with their second child.

Years later, the husband returned to the U.S. and their relationship improved. He’d often tell her how much he missed her and eventually asked Thompson to join him in the U.S. to which she agreed.

 

IMG_3565EDIT

Doors complete with a secured, buzz-in entrey, greet clients of the Tahirih Justice Center in Falls Church, which help immigrant women and girls flee domestic and other types of violence everyday. (Photo: News-Press)

“I always thought my husband would change and things would get better, but it just got worse,” said Thompson, who spoke to the News-Press with the help of a Spanish-English translator from TJC.

It wasn’t long before her husband became abusive again and in November 2005, her employers convinced her to seek help from law enforcement. Thompson obtained a protective order — which her husband violated, leading to his arrest.

Thompson cooperated with law enforcement in the prosecution of her husband, who was found guilty of domestic assault and battery, served a brief sentence, and was deported back to Peru.

“I’m glad to be here where I’m safe because I don’t think my husband will change. I don’t know what he’ll do and I want to protect my kids. He’s always going to be angry and bitter. He just has it inside of him,” said Thompson.

After his deportation, Thompson’s husband sent letters threatening to harm Thompson’s employers and the detective who had investigated the domestic violence case.

Now, a month and a half following her U visa approval, Thompson is able to make plans for her future.

She, along with her 8-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, have been without a car for the last five years, as Thompson was unable to legally obtain a driver’s license.

“Taking the bus makes everything complicated when I want to go to class or I have to pick up my kids. I don’t have to ask everyone for help now,” said Thompson, who went on to say she’s finally able to “sleep easy.”

Her ex would often threaten to have her deported.

“Every time I saw a police officer, I thought, ‘This is it. They are here to get me,’” said Thompson.

Nanasi said another reason women are hesitant about leaving abusive relationships is economic dependence. Thompson agreed, saying in many countries, women are told from a young age it is the man’s duty to provide for the family.

The women in Thompson’s previous support group were examples.

“Some of them were still sad. They wanted to go back [to their abusers] and still cared about them. Other women didn’t know what to do — they couldn’t work, they didn’t know the language and they came from cultures where men bring money to the house and the women stay at home,” said Thompson.

When asked where she sees herself in 10 years, Thompson said, “Wow, I don’t know. I hope I can teach again.” She graduated from a Peruvian university 10 years ago, specializing in working with children with special needs and speech problems.

After three years, U visa holders are able to apply for a green card, which is at the top of Thompson’s list. She fears for her safety if she is deported.

“Back in my home country, there’s a lot of corruption. A man can pay off a judge or lawyer. They can win any case they want,” said Thompson, who called herself “lucky” because of all of the unexpected support she’s received.

Though, more so, it was about who was giving it.

From her original social worker to her detective, all the way to Nanasi, Thompson’s had to climb up the judicial chain of command — the whole time being carried by females.

“It’s really hard to speak to male police officers about these things. And when I met Natalie, she had such a nice voice and everyone [at TJC] made me feel calm. They would talk me through it, and I would just cry. Other people who tried to help me, they’d make me feel like a number, like I wasn’t a person, like they were just tired of hearing the same story over and over again,” said Thompson.

“Now, I feel … safe.”

Thompson’s first stop? Disneyland.

TJC was the first organization in the D.C., metropolitan area to apply for U visa interim relief. Approximately 14,000 immigrants continue to wait for U visa approvals, over 100 of whom TJC represents.