Editor’s Note: This article was produced as part of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Names have been changed in this story for the protection of the victim.
THERMAL, Calif. — Alicia Montes was only 16 when she fell in love with Juan Alvarez in the courtyard of the trailer park where she lived with her father and siblings.
“I was abandoned as a child by my mother, and I was looking for the love of a parent,” she says in Spanish. “I thought I loved him, but now I see I did not.”
At the time, Montes could not imagine that charming young man would come to shove, choke, and kick her as he did throughout their 15-year relationship.
Montes, now 33, is one of an unknown number of victims of domestic violence in the Eastern Coachella Valley – a largely impoverished agricultural community with approximately 56,000 residents, about 20 miles east of Palm Springs — and one of the few to report her abuser to authorities.
Advocates and health workers in the Eastern Coachella Valley believe that acts of domestic violence such as spousal abuse go heavily underreported here, due to factors such as financial dependence on a spouse, and cultural acceptance. Perhaps most of all, experts say, the fear of deportation makes undocumented women like Montes especially vulnerable and unlikely to report.
Aurora Silva, a marriage and family therapist, has seen it firsthand.
“Domestic violence is more likely to be underreported by the women who believe that their rights are limited in a relationship,” says Silva, who has been working with domestic violence victims and offenders in southeastern Riverside County for 27 years. “Undocumented women feel trapped, powerless and helpless in a domestic violence situation. The more isolated a domestic violence victim is, the less likely she is to ask for help.”
According to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, reports of domestic violence incidents have trended down in the City of Coachella and the unincorporated communities of Mecca, Thermal, Oasis and North Shore. Combined, there were only 134 reports of domestic violence in 2013, the most recent data at the time of this report, compared with 196 the previous year.
Those numbers, says Silva, only reinforce the suspicion that domestic violence in the farmworker community is vastly underreported.
Triggering the legal process
The fear of being deported and losing her children is what kept Montes with her abuser for so long. Only when the fear of losing her life became greater than her fear of deportation, said Montes, did she report her husband’s abuse and cooperate with the legal prosecution.
That cooperation made Montes eligible to apply for legal residency in the United States through a U Nonimmigrant Status visa, also known as a “U visa,” for victims of violent crimes who cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute perpetrators.
Congress created the special visa in 2000, as part of the Violence Against Women Act, which included the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act.
“Congress recognized that undocumented people are at risk for being victims of crimes because perpetrators know that they aren’t going to call the police,” says Christy Holstege, a legal aid attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). “We want victims of crime to come forward in our community because otherwise all the perpetrators are going free.”
Nevertheless, federal immigration law stipulates that only 10,000 U visas can be given out annually, and for the past five years U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has issued the maximum. As a result, applicants like Montes are required to wait, sometimes for years.
CRLA attorney Blaz Gutierrez is representing Montes on her U visa application, which was submitted in 2013. “Sadly, there’s now a backlog of more than 30,000 applications. With only 10,000 available each year, this means that someone who applies today will likely have to wait at least three to four years to be granted the visa,” he says.
“I had nowhere to go”
At the age of 8, Montes and her three younger siblings were abandoned by their mother and left in the care of their maternal grandmother in Mexico. They never saw their mother again.
Their father, a farmworker in California, provided for his children by sending money back home, but only saw them once a year. Montes longed to tell her father about the abuse she was enduring – physically and emotionally by her grandmother and sexually by her uncle. But she didn’t, and year after year he went back to the United States believing his children were safe.
“My uncle threatened to do to my little sister what he was doing to me [if I told my father]. I would cry myself to sleep,” explains Montes.
Unresolved childhood trauma, says Silva, is commonly found among women who later experience domestic violence as adults. “Women in the fields have usually been treated as less than or unworthy since childhood, and have difficulty believing they have rights or that they are worthy,” she says.
As Montes grew older, the abuse intensified. When she was 12, she ran away to the home of a paternal aunt, who notified her father. It was then that Montes’ father hired someone to bring his children to the United States to live with him.
“He could not give us much, but we were happy because we were not being mistreated,” Montes says. With her father working two jobs, Montes cooked for the family and cleaned their trailer home. She and her siblings started going to school. But she was lonely.
“And then I met the father of my children.”
Juan Alvarez lived with his family in the same trailer park as Montes. She would sneak out to meet him until, one night, she did not return home. She moved into his family’s already cramped trailer. The arrangement worked at first, but “the happiness did not last long,” she says. The abuse began slowly. “He didn’t hit me, but he began to humiliate and mistreat me.”
When her father came looking for her, she hoped he would demand she come home with him. Instead, he told her that she could never come back home. Her family soon moved away, without leaving her an address. For the second time in her life, says Montes, she felt abandoned.
“I had to withstand abuse from [Alvarez] and his family. He would say I was worthless,” she says. “But where could I go? I had nowhere to go.”
Three years of living with Alvarez’s rage, jealousy, and heavy drinking passed by before Montes found her way out: a family member in Los Angeles had agreed to take her in. Then, just days before leaving, Montes discovered she was pregnant. The news triggered a fight with Alvarez, who denied the child was his and left the house in a rage. His reaction, says Montes, only strengthened her resolve to leave and find a better life for her unborn child.
But then he came back, begged for forgiveness, and promised to change. “And I stayed,” she says.
It’s a story that Silva has heard countless times. “Women in [the farmworker] sector are… very dependent on the offender, who is frequently threatening to have them deported or [telling them] that their children will be taken away. The fear of not surviving alone is very real for many of these women.”
Over an eight-year span beginning in 2000, Montes would give birth to three children with Alvarez. All the while, his jealousy and abusive behavior worsened. One day, Alvarez, convinced she was having an affair with a neighbor, “threw me on the bed and began to choke me. I couldn’t even scream,” says Montes. Her sister, who was visiting, managed to pull him off of her. Montes grabbed her children and ran down the front doorsteps of the trailer. Alvarez pushed her to the ground and, while she was holding their son, kicked her repeatedly. Neighbors called the police, but Alvarez was gone by the time they arrived. He came home a week later, again begging for forgiveness. This time, he promised, he really would change. Presents, flowers, balloons, and more promises followed. “I did not believe him,” says Montes, “but I stayed because I was scared.”
Creating an “atmosphere of trust”
Ramona Felix, an assistant coordinator at Lideres Campesinas, a women-led group whose mission is to eradicate domestic violence in California farmworker communities, has heard stories like Montes’ many times during the presentations she facilitates at homes, community centers, schools, and any other place that will host them.
At a meeting in August, in the living room of a private home in Coachella, she smiles at the dozen or so farmworker women in attendance. Propping up her brightly colored flip chart, she asks, “Can someone tell me the different types of abuse that exist?” Several women chime in.
“It’s not just physical, it’s also verbal,” says a middle-aged woman, in Spanish.
“If only it were just verbal,” says an older woman.
“Financial, sexual, psychological,” adds another.
Felix beams. Clearly, the women are receiving the message her organization has been working so hard to deliver. She begins her presentation: “Domestic violence is when one person hurts another person with whom they have or have had an intimate relationship…”
A survivor of marital violence herself, Felix knows the subject matter all too well. Her 45-minute presentation covers the types of domestic violence, the effect of violence on children, the cycle of violence, information about local shelters and safe houses, and an overview of the U visa application process.
“Lideres Campesinas creates a space where we can dialogue about this situation that we normally don’t talk about,” says Suguet Lopez, the organization’s executive director. “Once this happens, the women will take the message to the rest of the community, starting with their own family.”
Working directly with farmworker women since 1988, the organization has recently added a new approach to its arsenal: working with law enforcement. This helps create what Lopez calls an “atmosphere of trust” in the community.
“Ideally, law enforcement should behave in a way that is trauma-informed,” says Lopez, explaining that, “they should not expect to encounter women, children, and perpetrator in a calm state. Do you think showing up with a gun in hand will cause them to unwind?”
She cites her organization’s work with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, specifically Sergeant Jeronimo Contreras, as a step in the right direction.
“Sergeant Contreras understands because he is from this community, and he knows some of the beliefs that persist [here]. But there are officers who aren’t from our community, so there is an ongoing battle to get them to understand.”
Contreras estimates he has personally responded to about 100 domestic violence calls in the Eastern Coachella Valley in the 15 years he has been with the Sheriff’s Department. The contributing factors he saw most often were not unlike those one would expect in any community — drinking, substance abuse, financial problems, jealousy and claims of infidelity.
“But it could be something as simple as the house wasn’t clean when he got home,” he says. “It’s control, having power, one over the other. Quite often you get women who say, ‘I never reported it before because I was afraid. He told me he would get me deported.’”
Contreras says the workshops conducted by Lideres Campesinas have helped to counter misinformation about the law in the farmworker community. “Sometimes people are putting out bad advice to each other [such as], ‘If you call the cops, this is going to happen… Don’t call the cops ‘cause of that… With your husband away, you’re not going to be able to pay your bills… He’s going to get deported.’”
Farmworker women face unique set of challenges
The Lideres Campesinas workshops also challenge attitudes that experts say have been internalized by some members of the community. While picking grapes in the nearby fields in his youth, Contreras recalls hearing women saying to one another, si no me pega, no me quiere — if he doesn’t hit me, he doesn’t love me. Yet, Contreras does not believe the farmworker community is inherently different than any other when it comes to domestic violence. “I think everybody [has] problems just like everybody else,” he says. “You have the rich people, and they have the same problems.”
Blaz Gutierrez and Christy Holstege, legal aid attorneys at the Coachella office of California Rural Legal Assistance, have worked with many undocumented domestic violence victims. They disagree with Contreras’ assertion that domestic violence is the same in all communities.
“I have a hard time squaring that circle, just looking at the characteristics of who we have in this community,” says Gutierrez. “This community is distinct from others. Here, we have a very high number of both migrant and seasonal workers. Just looking at that dimension, if you leave and come back, up and down for weeks at a time, and you don’t really have a solid address, you don’t have a solid network of friends, you don’t have a solid religious base…You are much more vulnerable.”
Holstege says farmworker women in this community face systemic barriers, including poverty, lack of transportation, language, immigration status, and racial discrimination.
“Domestic violence does cut across all socioeconomic groups, all cultural groups, but there are barriers that make people less safe and less willing to reach out [in the Eastern Coachella Valley],” adds Holstege. “There are a lot of issues there. I’ve worked with domestic violence victims in [the more affluent communities of] Palm Desert and Indian Wells, but I’ve had most from Thermal,” she says. “And it’s different. It is.”
In early 2012, Alvarez raped, beat, and threatened to kill Montes. Her 12-year-old daughter called the police, and Alvarez was arrested.
Before taking Alvarez away, the Sheriff’s officer gave Montes the contact information for a women’s shelter. When he saw she was hesitant, he spoke to her bluntly: “Next time, do you want your daughter to call because her mother was killed?’”
The next day, she received a call from the police informing her Alvarez was about to be released. She made the phone call to the shelter, and within an hour, she and her children were picked up. For the next two months, even her closest family members did not know where she and her children were.
A shelter employee drove her to the courthouse to request a restraining order and full custody of her children, which the judge initially denied. Alvarez showed up with an attorney. “I left crying, scared he was going to take my kids. I didn’t want them to live without their mother, as I had,” says Montes.
Holstege says that access to justice is another barrier for farmworker women. “Often, attorneys can charge $2000, at least $1000, for restraining order representation, [and] the abuser often has control of all the money. They hire their own attorney. That is why, in [Riverside County], survivors of domestic violence are losing their court cases… It’s nearly impossible for victims to access an attorney unless you have thousands of dollars to pay.”
Things began to fall into place for Montes after she was assigned a social worker. She came to CRLA when she heard the nonprofit offered pro-bono legal assistance. She was able to obtain a criminal protective order, which remains in effect until 2015, and a pro-bono attorney helped her keep custody of her kids and informed her about the U visa.
County policy adds another barrier
CRLA was able to take on Montes’ case for one reason: her abuser was being prosecuted. U visa applications require a certification from local law enforcement confirming the cooperation of the victim. The U visa statute does not require that crimes be prosecuted in order to get certification.
Riverside County, however, only issues certifications for prosecuted crimes, and all must be approved by the District Attorney’s office – even though the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) also accepts certifications from other agencies, such as child and adult protective services and law enforcement agencies.
“In other counties, calling 911 is sufficient cooperation with law enforcement to justify signing a certification form,” says Gutierrez.
Because domestic violence is underreported and under prosecuted, Gutierrez says Riverside County’s policy makes it difficult for CRLA to take on most U visa applicants as clients. Unless the perpetrator is being prosecuted, which is out of the victim’s hands, CRLA can’t take the case.
“Our legal position is that the Sherriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies definitely have the authority to certify. All they are certifying is ‘Yes, this person is a victim of a crime, and they were helpful or participated in some way with that prosecution,’” says Holstege.
Gutierrez says CRLA has had to become more selective. “One thing we must take into consideration is managing our clients’ expectations. If I sign someone up, knowing that all these barriers exist, I’ve done a disservice to my client,” he says.
“Law enforcement is often afraid that they are giving the person [legal] immigration status, that they are acting on behalf of ICE and saying, ‘This person can stay here.’ But they are only certifying one of the elements of the U visa application.”
A critical part of the U visa application, and one that is complicated for many applicants, says Gutierrez, is the Waiver of Admissibility.
“You have to explain your immigration past, and you have to say, ‘I am very sorry, may I be forgiven for my past indiscretions?’ One way is to show that the person is of good moral character. Letters from friends, neighbors, co-workers, religious people, teachers. We have to bundle that up and present it in a compelling and convincing way that shows this person is of good moral character,” he says. “Not everyone can show that.”
Montes, who has a long history of volunteering at her church and children’s schools, was able to demonstrate good moral character. She recently received word that she is being granted deferred action – temporary protection from deportation – a specific type of relief given to applicants who meet U visa criteria but can’t be granted a visa immediately because USCIS has already issued the maximum amount for that fiscal year.
“Sadly, there are more than 10,000 victims who qualify for this visa every year,” says Gutierrez. “Because they have reached the limit, USCIS is doing something very innovative for which we are very grateful… With [deferred action, Montes] will be able to obtain a Social Security number, pay taxes, access social services, obtain a driver’s license. It’s not the visa, but it offers plenty of protection for the applicant.”
Gutierrez anticipates Montes’ U visa will be approved in the 2015-16 fiscal year. Five years after that, she can apply for permanent residency. Five years after that, she can apply for citizenship.
“The process of survivorship is long; it’s continuous for their entire lives. Her children are going to have to carry that for a very long time. It’s a part of who they are now. There is going to be a lot of steps along the way,” says Gutierrez. “But living with the peace and quiet, that is huge. Nothing can replace that.”
Montes is looking forward to eventually becoming a citizen. “I’ve been here, since they brought me as a child. In Mexico, I had nothing; we came with nothing. Here, I have everything. I have my children… It’s ironic that [Alvarez] caused me so much hurt and made so many threats, and because of that, for better or worse, I am going to stay.”