High court ruling: a blow, not a final block for millions of immigrants

Despite Supreme Court's action blocking Obama's plan, unauthorized immigrants who have suffered abuse – a frequent problem – have other paths to get special visas to stay in the US.

Nick Ut/AP/File
Guatemalan immigrant Jocelyn Rodas and her daughter, Alice, join families impacted by immigration raids during a rally outside a federal immigrant detention center in Los Angeles in May.

At a recent weekly meeting here in Tijuana, Mexico, attendees went around the room sharing their experiences leading up to their deportation from the United States.

Although every ​mother's and father's ​story was different – where they were living, how many children they had, how they were deported, and whether their partners were US citizens or legal residents – one common thread emerged: 75 percent of the women in the group suffered some form of domestic abuse while living without legal documentation in the United States.

“My husband didn’t just abuse me there, he’s still abusing me here,” says Maria de la Luz Montalvo, whose US-citizen husband has permitted her two youngest daughters to visit her only once in the five years since her deportation. She suspects he played a part in her expulsion, which took place just weeks after he convinced her to return home from a battered women’s shelter.

The US Supreme Court Thursday announced a 4-4 deadlock that effectively continues the block on President Obama's attempt to keep millions of unauthorized immigrants from being deported. The outcome from United States v. Texas was a defeat for the administration, whose 2014 executive action on immigration included work eligibility for children who were brought to the US under the age of 16, as well as for some of their parents.

The case now goes back to be tried by the district judge who issued the temporary injunction against the president's plan.

Republican lawmakers cheered the ruling.

“The Constitution is clear: The president is not permitted to write laws – only Congress is. This is another major victory in our fight to restore the separation of powers,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement following the ruling.

Blow to millions of youths 

Thursday's ruling is a blow for millions of eligible youth and eligible parents of US-born children or those protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Even so, there are other avenues open to both immigrant adults, like Ms. Montalvo, and children if they were abused while in the United States. Special visas granted under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as well as U- and T-class visas for immigrants who suffer domestic abuse, trafficking, sexual assault, stalking, child or elder abuse, and a host of other crimes, are available to those still in the US, and, in many cases, to migrants who have already been deported.

The logic behind creating these paths to citizenship is to encourage more people to report crimes and cooperate with authorities to help solve cases related to trafficking, assault, or abuse.

“Domestic violence occurs everywhere: lower income, higher income, Mexican, Filipino, US, Canadian communities, it doesn’t matter where, it’s there,” says Leslye Orloff, director of the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project at American University’s law school. “What we do know is that abuse is higher among immigrant [men and] women than US-born … in part because abusers can use immigration status as an added element of power and control.”

In recent years, there’s been an uptick in efforts to educate immigrants in the US – as well as communities of deportees abroad – about the legal resources available to them. And Ms. Orloff hopes that screening individuals for visa eligibility will also be stepped up before deportation proceedings.

Some 25 percent of the US population today is either foreign born or has one or more foreign-born parent, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And, Ms. Orloff notes, "Some proportion of that group doesn't have stable immigration status. If they do, it might be controlled by a family member or employer, or they are afraid to come out of the shadows because a perpetrator is targeting them because they are undocumented. That makes them more vulnerable and less likely to call for help."

For the nearly 50 men and women who participate with The DREAMers Moms in Tijuana, a group of deported parents who are trying to find ways to legally reunite with their children in the United States, raising awareness about reporting crimes while still on US soil is key to preventing more men and women from ending up in their place.

“As we learn more about these avenues, we try to share that information with other parents groups like ours in the United States,” says Yolando Varona, founder of the group here.

A key point is the need for documentation. “You need a police report, a shelter report, or a court record – something to show a crime was reported,” Jesus Grijalva, a pro bono lawyer who is working with multiple women from the DREAMers Moms group, says of applying for U-visas. “I try to be very straightforward when someone tells me their story, because it’s so easy for people to get their hopes up, thinking ‘this terrible thing happened to me, but now I can return home to my kids.’ Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.”

Reaching people in shadows

Many members of the DREAMers Moms, like Montalvo, had no idea the abuse they lived with in the US was grounds for a potential return until they joined the organization.

Public information campaigns in Tijuana have grown over the past year, says lawyer Nicole Ramos, who tackles cases related to immigration on both sides of the border. She assisted in an event with the US Consulate at a local women’s shelter here to educate about U-visas and VAWA self-petitions. The self-petitions were designed to allow spouses or relatives of US citizens, who should be able to get permanent residency, to put that process into motion themselves in the case of emotional or physical abuse by the US citizen.

“People are realizing it’s a possibility,” Ms. Ramos says, though she also notes that it’s opened up new opportunities for fraud on the part of lawyers or pseudo-lawyers, who might string someone along even if they don’t have a viable case for one of these visas. “I’m seeing a lot more commercials on TV saying, ‘You might qualify!’ ”

Education efforts in the US have been on the upswing for the past decade, Orloff says, but the challenge is in reaching a population that is often living in the shadows.

“The primary way [immigrant women] learn about help that’s available to them is through talking to other women – their mothers, sisters, and girlfriends – which means community education and materials and information need to be hyper-local,” she says.

“You could have a national ad campaign, but in how many languages? How could you reach all of these immigrant communities?” Orloff asks. She says some of the most effective work targets immigrant advocates, social workers, clergy, and other local leaders in specific communities.

“There’s always more that needs to be done in terms of outreach, particularly in times that are more anti-immigrant,” says Orloff. “It’s harder to get the word out and more important to get the word out.”

Reporting in Tijuana was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation

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