Undocumented Life: Activist Dolores Huerta pushes for renewed focus on Violence Against Women Act

Undocumented Life:  Activist Dolores Huerta pushes for renewed focus on Violence Against Women Act
Dolores Huerta , left, comforts Irma Duran after she told her story of domestic violence during a press conference to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Photo by Lucio Villa.


The abuse started only months after Irma Duran married him.

He became controlling. Dictating her every move, including not letting her sleep. And the abuse only got worse.

“He threatened me when I asked him for a divorce,” Duran said. “He said, ‘I’m going to cut each one of your eyes out with a knife.’”

Her story is one in a sea of domestic abuse victims. These women are undocumented immigrants and feel trapped in an abusive relationship. Since 1994, a federal law has helped thousands of women in such situations, but the legislation is pending re-authorization.

Duran shared her story publicly for the first time this month at a news conference in hopes of bringing attention to the Violence Against Women Act. The law helps undocumented women who live with an abusive partner to obtain legal residency status on their own without the assistance of that partner.

The re-authorization has been pending since May. Duran filed for a self-petition, which is the first step in becoming a legal resident without the help of a spouse. Thanks to this law, she’s now waiting to become a legal resident.

Duran is a short woman, who stood strong before the crowd as she talked about her abuse. Behind her glasses, she blinked back tears. It was only after another woman was sharing her own story of abuse that Duran let her tears fall.

Mujeres Latinas en Accion,  a group that focuses on supporting Latina women, hosted the news conference that also included labor leader Dolores Huerta. Among Huerta’s accomplishments is working alongside César Chávez to co-found the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.

When the 82-year-old Huerta took to the stage, she put her arm around Duran. She also urged Chicagoans to call their representatives to ask them to reauthorize the act.

“We’re sick and tired of this war against women,” Huerta said.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and at the news conference, Mujeres Latinas en Accion released its joint study with Casa de Esperanza’s project, the National Latino  Network. The study found that among the barriers in immigrant communities is that many Latinas from other countries are unaware domestic violence is a crime in the U.S. They also don’t know about the array of resources available.

Legal status has become a tool for abusers to keep their victims from seeking help  and having this law helps these women to come forward, said Maria Pesqueira, executive director of Mujeres Latinas en Accion.

Many undocumented women fear that if they try to get help, they’ll be deported.

About 35 percent of foreign-born women who called into the National Domestic Hotline reported a fear of calling police during domestic violence situations, according to a recent study conducted by the hotline.

Such stark numbers highlight the importance of re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act, activists said.

However the legislation is being held hostage by the divisiveness of politics. There are two versions of the law, one in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. The Violence Against Women Act, which was authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden, was first approved in 1994.

The House version of the bill would eliminate important provisions that immigration activists say have protected victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking. That version, for example, would allow the abusers to be included in the legalization process of the alleged victim. But supporters of the House version say these provisions would eliminate fraudulent petitions.

The number of applications under this law that were denied in 2011 increased to 31 percent from 28 percent from the previous fiscal year.  Of the 6,202 applications processed during that year, 4,238 were approved and 1,964 were denied.

The way it looks now, Duran could benefit from the law.  Her story here stretches back to 1982, when she and her children arrived in Chicago from Guadalajara. Her first husband was abusive and she decided to migrate north to start a new life. Like many other immigrants, Duran was unable to become a legal resident during the 1986 amnesty signed by President Ronald Reagan. She did receive a work authorization until 2006. The former teacher met her second husband in bible study.  He is a legal resident but never submitted an application for her to become a legal resident.

Coming forward and sharing her story was not easy for Duran, who has grandchildren. She tried explaining the two years of abuse she suffered with her second husband but was unable to speak and would start sobbing. It’s clear, she is still traumatized.

“I’m urging them (legislators) to approve this bill,” she said in Spanish. “Women need this type of protection.”

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