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USA: A way out for undocumented victims of domestic violence

By Almudena Toral

NEW YORK CITY — Graciela Beines is a survivor.

She arrived in the United States from Argentina 10 years ago. She was undocumented, unmarried, had no children in the country and barely spoke English. In 2002, Beines, 50, was victim of brutal domestic violence.

Many undocumented women like Beines don’t know they have options and fail to report domestic violence because of fears of deportation, said Evelyn Garcia from Violence Intervention Program (VIP). VIP is a nationally recognized Latina organization that promotes nonviolent partner relationships and offers services for victims of domestic violence. Beines lived in a VIP shelter for 9 months.


“He always hit me, and then said, ‘If you call the police I’ll report you to immigration,'” Beines said in Spanish.

“This is a very common problem. A lot of times they’ll be afraid to get help because they fear if I go to the police, they’re going to tell immigration,” said Tracy Bing, a lawyer who works with domestic violence cases at Manhattan Legal Services. “That’s a big deal.”

“In New York I met a man who gave me the sky, the stars and the moon. And the stars — yes, I saw them, but because of the blows he gave me,” Beines said.

Beines was wearing a white wool sweater, jeans and hair in a ponytail on a recent evening. Her extremely pale skin had no makeup on. Her blue eyes, no eyeliner. That’s her usual look in recent years, she said. But it wasn’t what Graciela used to wear before she went through domestic violence.

“The violence is not only the blow, the violence is also, ‘Don’t wear that, who are you talking with?’ ‘You should be able to buy all the groceries for this week with $20.’ ‘I don’t want you to leave the house alone,'” Beines said.

She stayed in hospitals three times and reported him to the police several other times during the two years they were together. But she always forgave him because of fear, she said.

She also quit two jobs because she was ashamed of the way her blackened, battered face looked. That created financial dependency on her abuser.

She ran away from what she calls “hell,” only after an especially horrific night on Feb. 28, 2002.

That night she feared for her life.


“That day I said ‘Stop.’ The fight started, the blows came, he threw me to the bed, put a pillow over my face and wanted to put an electric drill on my face to kill me,” Beines said calmly.

“Then I said, ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ and the process started,” Beines said. Their apartment had no curtains, so a neighbor saw what was happening and called the police. She managed to get away from him and started running down the stairs. Within seconds the police was there, Beines recalled, and they took him to prison.

Both of them spent that night in prison — Beines getting the police report done, and him in jail with other prisoners.

“I remember that night I went to the bathroom at some point and went by the guardroom where he was,” Beines said. “He screamed at me, ‘Muqui, muqui, I know you’re going to forgive me like you always do.'”

But she never did. Next day she came back to the apartment, cleaned the mess and lived there until she moved to a VIP shelter in Manhattan 12 days later. The same policewoman that had arrested him on Feb. 28 came back next morning and took her to the court in the Bronx.

There they put her in touch with lawyers and social workers. There she met Tania Rodriguez, a lawyer that would be by her side during the following months, making life seem bright again, she said.

There she learned about the U Visa.

“If I had known of the U Visa, that I was gonna have all the support from the shelter that I had, I wouldn’t have put up with the abuse for two years. I resisted for two years because of ignorance,” Beines said.

During the following months, Beines received free housing and food. Also free legal and psychological help. As soon as her physical wounds healed, she started working again to provide for herself. And she did so legally; in early 2003 she had a one-year renewable work permit.

“Most of our clients don’t know that this benefit actually exists,” said Terry Lawson, a lawyer in the family unit of Legal Services NYC-Bronx.

“She got the deferred action, as the regulations of the visa were not approved until October 2007,” said Marisol Arriaga, a lawyer who specializes in the domestic violence cases of undocumented immigrants.

The U Visa, a visa for immigrant victims of crimes, is given to 10,000 people annually and valid for four years. The criteria for this visa, Arriaga explained, are diverse. But, overall, the victim has to cooperate with the police in the crime investigation.

This is an essential benefit for undocumented immigrants, Arriaga said. Unless they have kids who are citizens, they don’t qualify for other benefits in cases of crime. “After three years with a U Visa, they can apply for a permanent residence,” Arriaga said. It’s one of the few non-immigrant visas that allow this.

Beines said she received a letter a few days ago that said she will have permanent-residency status in six months. “I cried for happiness; I’ve suffered so much,” Beines said.

With the visa or without it, immigration status doesn’t matter when it comes to reporting domestic violence to the police, said Violeta Garcia of Step to End Domestic Violence.
“They will never ask for immigration papers.”

“I had a lot of fear. But I would like other women to know that this city helps,” Beines said.

She nowadays keeps pictures of him in a brown box, together with pictures of Argentina and her family. It doesn’t disturb her, she said.

She talks about her abuser like someone who talks about an apathetic neighbor. She uses that same unchanged tone of voice, that same Argentinean humor she uses to describe her daily routines and the mundane.

“One thing I like doing in the morning is to look at myself in the mirror. ‘Hi, beautiful, how are you,'” she mimicked with a smile. Although the abuse has left her with anxiety and fears — he was set free from jail only several months after she denounced him– she remains positive.

Beines now shares a small two-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx with her two cats and works as a real-estate agent in Manhattan.

“You have to overcome all of this, you have to survive.”

(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published at the Interactive Journalism site of City University of New York’s graduate journalism program.)

Learn more about Almudena

Almudena Toral is a La Caixa Foundation fellow. She was born in Spain in 1984 and holds a bachelor´s degree in Journalism from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and a Graduate Diploma in International Relations with a focus on International Development and International Economics from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).

She has worked in Hispanic media in Florida and has reported from Spain, Cyprus, Italy, Rwanda and the U.S. Almudena won a silver José Martí Journalism Award for a health magazine she edited in 2008 while working at TV Net Media in Florida.


Currently, Almudena is working on her MA in International Journalism at City University of New York, where she is particularly interested in reporting on immigration and Hispanic community issues.

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