Published on September 12, 2008 by Boston Globe
Immigrants more likely to be domestic violence victims
by Maria Sacchetti
Immigrants account for a disturbingly high share of domestic violence deaths in Massachusetts, advocates say, raising fears that the nation's heated immigration debate is deterring abuse victims from seeking help.
In Framingham last week, an undocumented immigrant whose husband had beaten her for two days called a hot line in tears, saying she was too afraid to call police. In Boston's Chinatown, women fear becoming burdens to relatives back home if they leave their husbands.
In some cases, the fallout affects families far from Massachusetts. In hurricane-ravaged Haiti, relatives of Norma Dorce Gilles are struggling to survive without her frequent care packages of spaghetti, peanut butter, and $400 in cash. Gilles, a Malden beautician, was smothered and dumped in the trunk of her car in February, allegedly by her former boyfriend, Lesly Cheremond, an illegal immigrant who had been ordered deported and is now awaiting trial in the killing. He has pleaded not guilty.
"We need to shore up services or this will continue," said Mary Lauby, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., a statewide coalition of sexual assault and domestic violence programs. "What we are afraid of is the deeper isolation felt by immigrant victims. That is the danger point."
Immigrants make up an estimated 14 percent of the state's population, but accounted for 26 percent of the 180 domestic violence deaths in Massachusetts from 1997 to 2006, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Public Health. Nearly all of the 47 victims were women and children.
Illegal immigrants are perhaps the most vulnerable, advocates say, because they fear deportation. Batterers often threaten to report their victims to immigration officials if they go to police. Some batterers who are US citizens or legal residents even refuse to help their spouses apply for legal residency, effectively holding them hostage, advocates say.
"There's so much anti-immigrant sentiment and so much vitriol coming out of communities, it's really driving a lot of immigrant victims back underground," said Mary Gianakis, executive director of Voices Against Violence, a Framingham nonprofit that runs a shelter and other services. "It's really very frightening for people if they think that by reaching out they're somehow going to be outed as undocumented."
Federal immigration authorities said they do not generally deport victims of domestic violence who are here illegally. They urge victims to report the crimes, a step that opens new avenues to apply for legal residency, such as a special visa for crime victims. Greater Boston Legal Services, which has the main state contract for helping domestic violence victims, is helping more than 200 people apply for permanent legal residency.
"Our focus is on the criminal," said Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of investigations in the Boston office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which covers New England. "The person who is actually a victim is the last person we have a focus on as far as immigration enforcement goes."
Fear of deportation could keep batterers from seeking help as well. Judge Sydney Hanlon of Dorchester District Court said batterers are reluctant to plead guilty and enroll in treatment programs because they could be deported, even if they are here legally. This could also deter victims from reporting crimes, she said.
"Many of the women that I see don't want their partner deported," Hanlon said. "They want there not to be violence."
State officials say they are trying to beef up immigrant advocacy programs after what they said were years of underfunding. In 2003, the state's fiscal crisis cut money for translators and other services under the Refugee and Immigrant Safety and Empowerment Program. This year, the state is spending $1.1 million on the program, up from $800,000 spread over the 2006 to 2008 budget years.
For abuse victims of all backgrounds, resources are still scarce, advocates say. The state has fewer than 400 shelter beds set aside for victims, according to Jane Doe Inc. On any given day, about five beds are available for 50 people in the general population who call to request them.
Immigrants often require translators and counselors who understand their cultures and the customs of their native lands. In other countries, advocates say, domestic violence laws might not exist or aren't enforced. A 2006 report for the state said domestic violence was a significant concern for immigrant women from a variety of regions.
Each community grapples with its own fears. Cambodian women are often afraid of being deported and burdening their families, while Chinese women often fear "losing face" within their communities, according to the Asian Task Force in Chinatown.
Some Brazilian women have said they were afraid to leave their batterers because they had threatened to harm their relatives in Brazil.
In Greater Boston's Haitian community, six people have been killed in domestic violence cases since 2003 - five women and one man, said Carline Desiré, executive director of the Association of Haitian Women in Boston.
In the meantime, the community is dealing with the aftermath of the deaths. In July, Greenland Etienne, a 33-year-old mother of four from Haiti, was stabbed to death in Boston, allegedly by the estranged boyfriend of a friend she was trying to protect.
Gilles, the Malden hairdresser, left grieving survivors here and in Haiti. Her mother, who visits Massachusetts regularly, said she cannot stop crying. And the responsibility of supporting their relatives in Haiti has fallen on her brother.
"She was the bread and butter of her family in Haiti," said a cousin, Pierre Joas, a tax preparer in Somerville who now educates the community about domestic violence and other issues on a cable TV show. "All of them depended on her."
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com.
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