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Task Force Studies Domestic Violence in Immigrant Communities
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Last year, domestic violence shelters in Connecticut helped 53,000 victims. But it's the unreported cases of domestic violence in immigrant communities that has captured the attention of a state task force. A panel is drafting recommendations to the General Assembly of ways the state can help immigrant victims. In WNPR's continuing series, The Changing Face of Connecticut, Lucy Nalpathanchil reports that many immigrant women find themselves in complicated domestic situations.

Yolima is a petite, pretty woman from Colombia who wears her hear pulled back and dresses in modest, dark clothes. She came to the United States with her two young sons eight and a half years ago on a tourist visa which they overstayed. She met her American husband while working at a deli. Several months later they decided to get married.

"He was marvelous to me at first--he was so good to me. We were friends for about six months. I made the mistake of telling him I didn't have my papers."

It was after her wedding that she began to see a different person.

"So a few days later he started putting little notes on the wall, the television, the computer, the refrigerator saying don't eat after 8 o'clock, don't turn the TV on after a certain time, the TV is mine, don't use the computer, the computer is mine, everything."

His temper only escalated in the ensuing days. One night she ran to her sons’ room telling them to call 911.

"But my oldest son told me, ‘Mommy, remember we don’t have any papers, Mommy, if you call the police they’ll put us in prison.”

After he became violent, a friend contacted the police.

But anticipating that police might get involved one day, her husband had already filed a restraining order against Yolima.  When the police arrived, she was arrested while her sons were taken into custody by the state Department of Children and Families.

The arrest put Yolima in a precarious situation. She was in an abusive relationship and was now facing deportation.  Her attorney, Kara Hart with Greater Hartford Legal Aid says it's a problem unique to immigrant women.  She says it's not uncommon for abusive spouses who have legal status to make promises that they'll help their wives get legal documents---all the while, the abuse continues. They will also threaten to report the victim to immigration authorities if she tries to leave the relationship.

“I think the federal government realized that in some relationships there’s an incredible imbalance of power and when people like Yolima think their only options are to submit themselves and their children to horrific levels of abuse and control or be deported, unfortunately a good number of people will stay in those relationships.”

That's why Congress approved an option through the Violence Against Women Act where immigrants can petition for legal status without a sponsor.  Yolima used this to apply for a green card by proving  her marriage was in good faith and not a ploy to just gain citizenship.  But not many women know about the law.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says that nearly 70,000 thousand women and their children have applied through this program in its twelve year history. That's compared to the 4.6 million immigrants who were granted some type of legal status in 2008 alone.

Lawmakers in Connecticut started their own task force last August to address the problem after hearing from pastors in the Roman Catholic church. Michael Culhane is Executive Director of the Catholic Conference.  He says neither the church nor the government can turn its back on the problem.

“Compassion is the key phrase when you’re dealing with people who are uprooted for a number of reasons and transplanted here. They should not be in a violent or abusive situation.”

Since that time, a panel made up attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement and advocates have met twice a month to study how domestic violence in immigrant communities can be reduced.

The task force will present its recommendations to the General Assembly before the end of the month.  Co-chair, Representative Gerald Fox of Stamford says the panel will zero in on how to improve state services to immigrants and make them aware of federal assistance.

Fox says it also makes fiscal sense considering domestic violence takes up one quarter of cases in criminal court.

“I didn’t realize the extent, the fiscal strain that domestic violence cases take upon our judicial branch.  You’re dealing with not only a serious social problem, a serious public policy problem, but also a serious fiscal problem. this is a worthwhile area not only because domestic violence is a problem but also we can actually do something on a financial end if we can reduce this.”

And addressing this now may help alleviate social problems within a population that's estimated to grow in Connecticut.  Census numbers show the immigrant population will double by 2025 with the addition of 337,000 foreign-born residents.