Immigrants often see peril in reporting domestic abuse

Indian immigrant Rumi Jaggi said she didn’t report the abuse in part because of cultural expectations that she would stay married. R.M. said she didn’t leave her husband because she spoke only Mandarin and relied on him to pay the bills. Concepcion Arellano said she endured abuse because she feared deportation.

Though Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies and community organizations have made advances in responding to domestic violence in immigrant communities, attorneys and advocates say many victims still face obstacles in reporting abuse and seeking help.

Language barriers, financial dependence and lack of information keep victims from coming forward. And those here illegally worry about being sent back to their native countries.

Many victims do not know that they may be eligible for special visas for victims of crime and domestic violence.

“There is so much fear of contacting authorities for fear of being deported,” said Olivia Rodriguez, executive director of the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council. “That is paramount with most domestic violence victims who are not here legally or are in the process of becoming citizens.”

Her council recently started a task force on immigration and plans to create a resource manual for immigrants who are victims of domestic violence. The Mexican Consulate also has developed a network of agencies to provide counseling, legal representation and shelter. Advocacy groups, lawyers and ethnic media are also trying to raise awareness.

“The main problem is the lack of knowledge,” said Juan Gutierrez Gonzalez, consul general at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. “That is the greatest challenge. We need to repeat again and again that the people should not tolerate this.”

Some shelters won’t accept victims who cannot understand English, but others have multilingual staff and cater to specific ethnic groups. And several agencies, including the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, have translators available for victims who don’t speak English.

For some South Asians, there is a stigma associated with going to a shelter, and few shelters make accommodations for religious-based diets, said Saima Husain, coordinator of the anti-violence unit at the South Asian Network. There is also a worry about bringing shame on their families if they leave their husbands, she said.

Jaggi, 34, who gave a nickname rather than her legal first name, said she met her husband in Bombay and married him six months later. She was attracted to him in part because he didn’t expect her to act like a traditional Indian woman, accepting that she worked in a theater and had male friends. But Jaggi said the abuse began just months after they wed. “That was the beginning,” she said. “I had one mark or another all the time.”

When she told her parents she wanted to leave, Jaggi said, they weren’t supportive. “Marriage is sacred,” she said.

The couple immigrated legally to the U.S. in 2006 but Jaggi said the situation didn’t improve. Even though she spoke English, Jaggi said, she was new to the country and didn’t know where to turn. But early last year, she decided she had to leave. Through a friend, she learned about South Asian Network and sought help there.

“One thing that has pushed me through all this is that I want to live,” said Jaggi, whose divorce was final last year. “That has gotten me through a lot as a survivor.”

R.M., 48, from China, said she left her husband in 2005 after more than two years of abuse. R.M., who didn’t want her full name used out of fear, came to the U.S. in 1999. In 2003, she said, he began accusing her of being with other men and he starting hitting her, often in front of their youngest daughter.

“Daytime it was OK, but at night I had nowhere to hide,” she said through an interpreter. “I didn’t fall sound asleep because I worried about my life.”

R.M. said police, responding to calls from neighbors, came twice. “I was so scared but I still relied on him, so I told police it wasn’t serious,” she said. “I didn’t know English. I didn’t drive. I didn’t have work experience.”

But in May 2005, she said, a friend helped her contact the Center for the Pacific Asian Family, which operates a crisis line, an emergency shelter and a transitional housing program for domestic violence victims and their children. There, she found people who spoke her language and immediately felt at ease.

R.M., who hasn’t spoken to her husband since the day she left him, said she is thankful to be safe and to have a job, but she said she still doesn’t speak English well and is struggling to become more independent and support her daughters.

Arellano, 36, came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1990 and met her husband soon after. Their relationship was smooth at the start, but then the abuse started, she said. She left but returned because he wouldn’t let her take their daughter.

“I put up with it for years,” she said in Spanish.

Arellano said she didn’t speak English and didn’t know that help was available. She finally got away from her husband -- but at a price. She said he took their daughter to Mexico for two years.

Finally, in 2007, Arellano said, she got custody of her daughter and a restraining order against her husband. Their divorce was final last year.

The commissioner in family court said that Arellano’s ex-husband used the threat of deportation against her. Her attorney, Ana Storey with the Legal Aid Foundation, said that’s a common tactic among perpetrators.

“A mother is going to choose keeping her mouth shut to stay with her children,” said Storey, who is now helping Arellano with her immigration case.

Arellano, who has a new partner and a new baby, said other immigrant women should come forward as soon as the abuse begins. “From the start,” she said, “they should look for help and not wait until things get worse.”