Six years ago, Evangelina Mendez Ramirez was trapped in an abusive relationship.
Like many survivors of domestic violence, the mother of two feared what her husband might do if she contacted the authorities, but she had another reason to worry — her immigration status. When she first came to the United States from Mexico, she was undocumented.
"The idea that I had — that we have — is that if we ever encounter police and you're here illegally, they're going to immediately deport you or take you away," Mendez Ramirez said at a news conference on Tuesday at the Orange County Family Justice Center in Anaheim held to celebrate a new feature aimed at helping women just like her.
"But it wasn't that case at all," she went on. "For me, the best move that I made was to reach out to a police officer and to take that leap forward to move ahead."
With the support of Anaheim police and the Mexican Consulate in Santa Ana, Mendez Ramirez was able to flee the abuse and put her life back together, as well as gain legal residence in the United States.
To encourage more Mexican victims of domestic abuse like Mendez Ramirez to come forward and seek help, the Orange County Family Justice Center has inaugurated a new on-site help desk run by the Mexican Consulate. It offers the same services as those available at the consulate in Santa Ana and is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays.
The Orange County Family Justice Center, which is funded by the Anaheim Police Department, offers assistance to victims of domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse and sexual assault through a variety of services, including prevention classes and help navigating legal aid and the welfare program CalWORKS — all free of charge.
Collaboration between the two entities, officials said, will streamline services and provide Mexican victims a greater sense of ease when dealing with the police.
"Instead of going three days to three different buildings, they can do everything in the same place," said Mario Cuevas-Zamora, consul of Mexico in Santa Ana. "They have to work, they have children and sometimes they don't want to talk to everyone. It's a very delicate and sensitive issue. We have to provide the best conditions to the victims so they can step forward and get some help."
James Kazakos, director of the Orange County Family Justice Center, at 150 W. Vermont Ave, agreed.
"What we've found is that if you're a victim of domestic violence, many would rather go back to the abusive relationship. It was easier for them to put up with than trying to navigate the system," said Kazakos, who is also an Anaheim police lieutenant. "A center like ours, all they have to do is come through the door, and everything is provided for them."
It isn't clear how many Mexican immigrants in Orange County become victims of domestic violence each year, said Kazakos, but based on his experience, he said the "majority" of the 4,500 clients served at the center last year were Spanish-speaking.
Cuevas-Zamora said the consulate sees about 30 victims of domestic violence per month.
While Kazakos said that one of the biggest challenges he faces in serving this population is "trust" — "When you come in and see police officers, or a uniformed person at the front counter, a lot of people get intimidated," he said — Cuevas-Zamora said Mexican survivors are now more willing to report abuse than ever before.
One reason, he said, is that many are coming to understand what Mendez Ramirez learned six years ago — that reporting abuse won't affect immigration status.