American Nightmare 

They fear their husbands, but fear deportation more, leaving abused immigrant women with little hope.


When Nancy came to the United States from Ghana at age 25, she never imagined she'd end up under someone else's control. A high-school teacher in her home country, she had married a United Nations worker and had his child. The couple had adopted five more kids from impoverished villages, whom her husband brought to the city for better educations. But when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack, the young widow was left to support all six. "Life was very hard for me," Nancy recalls. "I heard that the United States was a better place, the land of opportunity, so I decided to come here and better my life." Leaving the children with her mother, she came to the East Bay on her own. The only person she knew here was an uncle, who helped her get a job as a home nursing aide for an elderly woman. She sent all of her wages home for her children. Nancy was nurturing, and soon drew the attention of one of the lady's friends, a man in his seventies. He would stop by the house several times a day to chat or help out; he helped manage the bills and would drive Nancy to the grocery store. Sometimes he'd treat her to a restaurant meal on the way home. The man praised her often, saying she was a nice person and that he appreciated the care she took of his friend. Eventually he approached her uncle, saying he hoped to marry Nancy. At first, she resisted -- she was new to the United States, and the idea of being with a much older white man made her nervous. Besides, she felt she didn't know the man or his family well enough. "In Ghana, we live in a community -- before you marry somebody you know the person's mother and father and even their grandparents," she explains. "You know the good and the bad." And in Ghanaian culture, divorce is not an option. "You marry for the rest of your life," she says.

For five or six months, Nancy's admirer continued to press her and her uncle about marriage. She grew to trust him and consider him her "best friend." Ultimately, she agreed to the proposal. "He told me he'd treat me good, he had his own house, a place for me to live, and I thought, 'Why not?'"

She soon found out. After the first month of living together, Nancy discovered that her new husband wasn't the man she thought she'd married: "All he wanted me to do is just stay home." To her, it seemed as though he had married primarily because he wanted a caretaker for himself and his mother, who was in her nineties. He demanded she quit her job and stop going to nursing school, and when she refused, he made it difficult for her to continue either pursuit, sometimes physically barring her from the door. Although she would routinely get back from work after midnight, he would never pick her up from the bus stop, or even give her the keys to the house so she could let herself inside -- she had to walk home alone and knock to get in. He also tried to prevent her from taking driving lessons, convinced she would go off on her own.

For two years, her husband's controlling behavior kept Nancy isolated and dependent upon him. He forbade her to speak her native tongue, Ashanti, on the phone because he feared she might be talking about him. He would hang up on anyone who called her, even her parents in Ghana, or simply pretend she was not at home. He denied her access to the couple's joint checking account -- once when Nancy withdrew $20 from the ATM he made her pay it back to him. He didn't let her cook African food in the house because he said it stank. He also was verbally abusive, she says, calling her a "black nigger" and insulting her culture. "You African, why did you leave? Do you live in trees? Do you have roads?" she recalls him saying. "You don't even have food to eat!"

But besides Nancy's cultural aversion to divorce, something else kept her tethered to her husband: her immigration status. Nancy was in the country illegally, and didn't have a valid work permit or other documentation. Her marriage to an American citizen made her eligible for a green card, which would give her lawful permanent resident status. This process can span many years, however, and must be initiated by the American half of the couple, who must cooperate fully by filing paperwork and attending interviews on behalf of the noncitizen spouse. Nancy's husband had begun filing her paperwork, but the process was far from complete, and he made sure she knew it. "He said if I don't go along with him he will let them take me back to Africa, and it's because of him that I'm still here," she recalls. He also told her that if she was pulled over while driving, the police could have her immediately deported because of her lack of papers. He went so far as to sabotage her green card process, hiding mail sent by the immigration authorities so that she missed a crucial interview.

On two occasions, the situation at home grew so untenable that Nancy went to a police station to file a complaint and then chickened out at the last moment, afraid that her immigration status would be used against her. Finally, on the day her husband threw all of her belongings onto the porch and locked her out, Nancy felt she had no choice. She called the cops, and with the assistance of one of her college instructors who noticed her crying in class, sought help at the International Institute of the East Bay, an Oakland nonprofit that assists immigrants and refugees. To her surprise, Nancy was told that abused immigrant women have the right to petition for their own residency, independent of their abusive spouses, thanks to a relatively recent law called the Violence Against Women Act. It's not an easy process, however, and it's still evolving as legal advocates begin to address the unique powerlessness of battered immigrant women.

What's more, the law is set to expire this fall unless reauthorized by Congress, even as women's-rights advocates push for reforms that will make it a more useful protective tool. Immigration law is imperfect and complicated, and often very tough to navigate for the hundreds of battered immigrant women living in the East Bay. Many have no idea that the physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse wrought by their spouses is illegal, or that there is any way to stop it. They are wary of the authorities, financially dependent on their abusers, and fear deportation if they come forward; two of the women interviewed for this story asked that only their first names be printed, while Nancy insisted on a pseudonym even for her first name. Because of their fear and lack of information, these women tend to remain invisible to authorities and service providers, enduring abuse for years until they turn up in desperate need of help, too bruised and bloodied to ignore. Or, like Nancy, they go to the police because they have nowhere else to go.

Domestic violence is not uncommon in the East Bay. In 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, the state's Criminal Justice Statistics Center logged 6,491 domestic-violence-related police calls in Alameda County and 4,290 in Contra Costa County. Women's advocates believe the number of official reports is artificially low because so many abused women are afraid or embarrassed to report their situation to law enforcement. As one measure of the disparity, STAND! Against Domestic Violence, the only shelter provider in Contra Costa County, estimates that it serves 13,000 individual clients a year.



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