Guest Commentary

Undocumented immigrants don't need to tolerate abuse

Irene Ortiz endured an abusive marriage for 15 years.

Ortiz was an undocumented immigrant. Armed with only a sixth-grade education, Ortiz married at 18 and moved to Douglas with her new husband. After five children, other women and many years of abuse, her alcoholic husband refused to help her get her papers.

Battered immigrant women feel they don't have the same rights as American women. They fear deportation if they call the police—so they stay in abusive situations. But in Arizona, there are several groups that provide help.

Fortín de las Flores (Fortí, founded in December 2010, opened a southside center in February 2011. Fortín de la Flores offers classes to assist undocumented immigrants, women and their children, and incorporated a clothing store, Preloved Chica Clothing.

Fortín de la Flores is solely funded by donations.

"We didn't want to be grant-funded, because as we all know, grants run out," said Maritza Broce, one of the founders.

Rosalva Romero, another co-founder, said she understands these fears. Originally from Hermosillo, Romero recently obtained citizenship with the help of her husband. She assists other women to prepare in case they get stopped by the Border Patrol or another law-enforcement agency.

"We want these women to have a plan just in case they end up being detained," Romero said.

The group offers classes that vary from community-support meetings to know-your-rights workshops. They are all free, and citizenship status is not asked.

Broce said they wanted to form an organization where there was no red tape, and where women and their families would feel comfortable. They have recently incorporated a job-development element, assisting women and college students in job searches, college applications, résumé-building and much more.

If Ortiz had known about such resources when she endured her domestic violence, she admits her life wouldn't have been such a struggle.

"Do I regret anything?" Ortiz asked rhetorically. "No, I don't, because I am here where I want to be in life, and I am proud of my children. I can only hope these organizations continue to help victims of domestic violence."

With most of her kids grown with children of their own, Ortiz is pursuing a GED through Pima Community College Adult Education.

In 1994, federal lawmakers began to recognize that immigration law effectively trapped women in violent relationships, so they passed the Violence Against Women Act. Under VAWA, battered immigrant women can petition for legal permanent status, if they can prove they entered their marriages in good faith, and can show that deportation would result in hardships for their families.

Most immigrant women are unaware of the VAWA and their ability to apply for a U visa. A U visa allows a woman to work in the U.S. for up to four years and apply for a green card.

The Pima County Battered Immigrant Women's Taskforce operates through a federal grant in partnership with the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families. The taskforce's ultimate goal is to improve access for abused immigrant women and their families and to guide them to appropriate services. The taskforce not only assists victims, but conducts analysis of gaps in services to improve programs; provides training for criminal-justice professionals; and works to raise public and community awareness about these issues and victim advocacy.

Montserrat Caballero, the Pima County taskforce coordinator, said that even if women understand their rights, sometimes law-enforcement officials do not.

Caballero said that since SB 1070 came into effect, there has been a drop in clients—and more people are calling to ask if immigration status is taken into account. Caballero said it is not.

"It's amazing how back in the '60s and '70s, people fought to move forward with civil rights and such," Broce said. "The question now is: Why are we moving backward, and how can we begin to move forward again? I just don't know."

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