The last time Maria saw her ex-husband, he allegedly strangled her in front of their daughter.
The toddler would be the last thing she’d ever see, she recalls him saying as she began to pass out.
Much has changed in the intervening two years for Maria.
“I no longer have panic attacks,’’ said the Latin American immigrant, recalling those dark days. “I can walk freely down the street.’’
Her ex-husband is in jail facing a half dozen rape and domestic assault-related charges.
In turn, she has found emotional and legal support at CasaLuz, Memphis’ only “culturally specific’’ organization for Hispanic victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
As the pandemic continues to drive the rate of severe domestic assault up in Memphis and across the country, a number of organizations offering services to domestic violence victims are seeing a drop in Hispanic clients, many of them undocumented immigrants who fear deportation.
But the opposite is true at CasaLuz, which has served around 800 people in the past year. Of those, 300 were new clients. According to Ines Negrette, the organization’s founder and executive director, those clients have filed a record number of orders of protection for situations that were “more violent than ever.”
“Really humble people [who] live in the shadows” is how Negrette describes her clients at CasaLuz, which offers advocacy, legal and counseling services to Hispanic victims of violent crime, many of whom are undocumented and indigent.
The Venezuelan-born former attorney set up the nonprofit in 2016, initially just for domestic violence survivors, who still comprise the majority of clients.
They include Maria, a mother of two who first sought help at CasaLuz before the pandemic, and who’s found continued support there amid the devastating isolation of the coronavirus crisis. (The Daily Memphian is concealing her real identity to protect her; “Maria” is a pseudonym CasaLuz required in return for arranging an interview.)
Maria met her husband shortly after arriving in Memphis four years ago. She said through an interpreter he became violent and controlling within months.
By her account, she endured two years of near-daily physical and sexual assaults, yet heeded the advice of friends and relatives, and stayed with her husband, a U.S. citizen, “for the sake of her children’s future.”
Being undocumented, she feared she’d never be able to provide for them.
That’s a common trap abusers lay for undocumented women, Negrette said.
CasaLuz has had many clients who are in the country “because their U.S. citizen or permanent-resident husband brought them here, but [then] didn’t do anything for their legal status,’’ Negrette said. “Because that’s how they can continue the cycle of abuse.”
Negrette said these abusers threaten their wives, telling them, “ ‘You are nobody here. You don’t have [legal] status. I will take the kids away from you. I will call ICE on you.’ Those women are trapped.”
It’s well documented that economics affects how long victims stay with an abuser. The less a victim earns, especially if they have children, the more they have to rely on a partner, even a violent one, to support the family. When immigration status is also a barrier to decent wages, victims’ choices become even more limited.
Or so they are conditioned to think.
But intervention at CasaLuz offered Maria a way out.
When asked what the organization gave her, by way of resources, Maria gushed: “Everything!”
From diapers and food, to therapy and legal aid in Spanish. The center’s legal partners, the nonprofit Mid-South Immigration Advocates, helped her file orders of protection, divorce papers, and perhaps most importantly, the documents that legalized her residency status in the U.S.
Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), as the undocumented spouse of an abusive U.S. citizen, Maria was able to self-petition for a Green Card (while a different law allows the undocumented spouses of undocumented abusers to apply for a nonimmigrant U visa).
Negrette has heard plenty of criticism that protections like these allow immigrants to “milk the system.” But how can they, she says, when most eligible victims “don’t even know about them?”
'Under the Radar'
Those who live on the margins of society often lack access to information because they lack the means to get that information. That became glaringly obvious in the pandemic to Caroline Schratz, one of two bilingual therapists at the nonprofit counseling center Kindred Place.
“The Spanish-speaking population still does have fewer resources in terms of internet access and technology,” said Schratz. In April of 2020, her Spanish-speaking therapy group of domestic violence survivors “completely dropped off, and most of them had to wait until we were offering in-person services once again. A lot of those ladies didn’t get any sort of continuation of care until we started opening again [in] June.”
Others still aren’t getting the care they need, said Brenda Flores, a bilingual therapist who works for the Shelby County Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center (CVRCC). While her coworkers’ English-language clients loved the convenience of virtual therapy, Flores’ Spanish-speaking caseload dropped by nearly half — and has stayed there.
She attributes some of that to the “digital divide,” or lack of technology. But in the general upheaval and confusion of the pandemic, she said many Hispanic immigrants — especially undocumented ones — have been “trying to stay under the radar, which is understandable.” Even before COVID, she said, she had to work hard to earn their trust.
They often tell her, “ ‘You work with the government. Who’s to say that you’re not working with ICE?’ ”
In truth, no government or law enforcement agency in Shelby County works directly with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, if someone is picked up and fingerprinted over a traffic violation, for instance, their fingerprints end up in a database that federal agents can and do access.
Which is why immigration status is one of the main reasons Hispanic victims wait so long to seek help — if they seek it at all, said Negrette. They fear family separation, incarceration, deportation — or all three.
Family violence expert Mark Wynn doesn’t blame them. Especially given the past four years, he said, during which there’s been “such a hatred of immigrants that undocumented immigrant women have stopped reporting to major police departments the crimes committed against them.”
Wynn is a retired lieutenant who played a key role in creating the Domestic Violence Division of the Nashville police force in the 1990s, and now educates police worldwide about the effects of trauma on domestic and sexual violence victims. Wynn said anything that increases the marginalization of undocumented immigrant women makes them “easy targets” for violent and sexual predators.
‘Equal opportunity crime’
Domestic violence can and certainly does cut across all gender, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Nevertheless, victim advocate Julianna Nemeth takes issue with the claim that it is an “equal opportunity crime.”
The co-founder of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence said, “Historically, populations that have seen structural disparities are targeted for interpersonal violence at higher rates. Racial and ethnic minorities experience violence at higher rates.”
How much higher, when it comes to Hispanic women, isn’t known. Nemeth said studies show they “are on par with White women for lifetime exposure to [intimate partner violence]. Obviously, this says nothing about undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants. And that was before the pandemic.”
The outsized role that undocumented Hispanic immigrants play in jobs like hospitality and construction left them particularly exposed to COVID. In Shelby County, the official Hispanic population stands at just over seven percent. But that’s considered a lowball figure since many undocumented people choose not to participate in the U.S. Census.
In fact, last summer Hispanics accounted for more than a quarter of all COVID cases in the county.
Maria was one of them, and she says she still has trouble breathing.
The pandemic was “very, very bad” for her, she said. She got sick and initially didn’t have enough work. Then when she did, she couldn’t afford childcare and sent her children to live with her mother, in her home country, for several months. And the fact that the courts shut down meant it took much longer to get a divorce.
But it also means her ex-husband’s sentencing trial was postponed for months. He is currently in jail on multiple charges, including aggravated assault and rape of his ex-wife, court records show.
Maria said he continues to stalk her from behind bars, sending messages through friends. Sometimes he says he wants her back, other times he threatens to hurt her again. But the longer he’s locked up, the better she feels.
She no longer lives in fear — of him, or deportation.
“Everything is better,” she said. “My self-esteem has gone up. My children’s lives are completely different, which is what’s most important for me. I have peace.”
Negrette said hearing clients say that is what keeps the staff going at CasaLuz, which operates on an annual budget of $400,000 that is stretched thin “like bubble gum.”
Some days are difficult, especially in the pandemic, during which they have never closed their doors and had to stock up on PPE. However, this spring they got a boost, a $50,000 Community Foundation grant that was part of a larger regional COVID relief fund for organizations led by people of color.
The recognition is important to Negrette, who said early on she had to choose whether CasaLuz would be an advocacy center, offering moral and counseling support, or expand to provide legal aid that no other nonprofit was offering the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, on their own terms and in their own language. She chose the latter, in order to help as many “Marias” out of the shadows as possible.