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Why Immigrant Spouses Are Uniquely Vulnerable To Domestic Violence

KPBS Evening Edition Host Peggy Pico talks with Anne Bautista, director at Access Inc. in San Diego, about domestic violence committed against immigrants.

Why Immigrant Spouses Are Uniquely Vulnerable To Domestic Violence

GUESTS:

Anne Bautista, director, VAWA Legal Program at Access Inc. in San Diego

Mariel Cota, domestic violence survivor

Transcript

Domestic Violence Month Fundraiser

Access Inc. is hosting a fundraiser, "Esperanza, A Story of Hope," 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Centro Cultural de la Raza. The event benefits immigrant victims of domestic violence.

Access is also participating in the Purple Purse Challenge during the month of October. Participants can donate a minimum of $10 to Access through its Crowdrise site and be entered to win a purple purse.

Looking back to when her nightmare began at age 32, Mariel Cota said she never thought she would become a victim of domestic violence.

"But the circumstances of me thinking that I could lose my son really and truly put me into this situation that I put up with everything," Cota said.

Cota remembers driving to her sister's house for a barbecue when she got a call from her ex-husband demanding she return home.

"He told me, 'If you’re not back in 15 minutes I will call the police and say that you kidnapped my son, because you have no rights,'" Cota said. "He told me, 'You’re nothing in this country because you have no rights,' and I remember I took the next exit and returned back to the house.”

Cota is from Mexico and she said she suffered emotional abuse at the hands of her ex-husband for 12 years. She thought she had nowhere to go. She said her ex-husband exploited the fact that she was not a U.S. citizen and did not know her legal rights in the United States to control her.

Anne Bautista is director of the VAWA Legal Program at Access Inc. in San Diego. For the last 18 years, she worked to make sure thousands of women, including Cota, were able to take control of the process to become legal residents.

"Not that we can encapsulate all the stories into one standard story but a running theme that I see with the victims is that there is intense fear in coming forward to tell anybody, law enforcement, friends or family because their status is the main thing that has kept them isolated and has kept them paralyzed," Bautista said.

Video by Katie Schoolov

Extended KPBS interview with domestic violence survivor Mariel Cota, on October 19, 2015.

The typical process for an immigrant spouse gaining legal status is that their citizen- or resident-spouse files the petition and the process can take up to three years. Under Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, there are provisions for victims of domestic violence and they may be eligible to self-petition.

Bautista said in order to qualify for self petition, immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents have to prove that they are the victims of battery or extreme cruelty, that the marriage was in "good faith,” and that they lived with their partner during the marriage. They would also have to prove they suffered extreme hardship.

Domestic Violence In San Diego County

According to the San Diego County District Attorney's office, in 2014 there were 16,897 domestic violence incidents reported countywide.

When Cota left her ex-husband she went to the YWCA's domestic violence shelter.

"I told them, 'I’m here in the shelter but what is going to happen with me legally? Are they going to come in and take my son away from me and say you kidnapped him?,'" she said. "I was so mislead about that situation that I truly believed that it can happen."

YWCA staff told her about Bautista's program at Access, Inc.

"Thanks to Anne Bautista, I remember she explained to me...you have rights regardless of your nationality, regardless of which country you’re coming from," Cota said.

It took about a year for her to prepare her case while she worked on securing her safety at the shelter and getting connected to professional counseling to deal with the constant threats and stalking by her ex-spouse.

Once her VAWA case was filed, the process took about a year from filing to approval. Upon approval, Cota was immediately eligible as the spouse of a U.S. citizen to apply for legal permanent residency, which she received on July 9, 2013. She is eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship next year. She said she is looking forward to being eligible to vote in the next election.

Cota is now putting her life back together. She's working as a florist, a skill she learned while living at the domestic violence shelter. Her son is now 13 and said he wants to be an attorney to be able to help women like her, especially those who don't speak English. Her older children, a daughter and son from another relationship, are thriving, too. Cota said her daughter, who is in college, wants to be a psychologist to be able to help children who've had traumatic experiences like she did.

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