Sept. 10, 2002 – Utilizing legal resources to help immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence is the aim of three days of seminar presentations this week being sponsored by the V.I. Justice Department.
Seventy-five percent of the people reporting domestic violence to Family Resource Center on St. Thomas are immigrants, according to social worker Lisandra Latorre. And almost half of those immigrants reporting abuse are in the territory illegally.
Latorre, a bilingual social worker, said the number of illegals turning to the agency for help has risen sharply in the last two years, a result of greater public outreach by the center. Now, she said on Tuesday, "They're not afraid to come for help … but I still think that there are more women out there."
And, attorney Warren Williams said on Tuesday, individuals who are in the United States illegally normally would not want "to present themselves to law-enforcement officials."
Williams, one of three V.I. prosecutors in charge of providing continuing education for members of the legal and law-enforcement community, said the purpose of the seminar "is to bring everybody on board so they will know … part of the problem of prosecuting this case is that the person may be in fear."
For prosecutors, victim advocates and immigration lawyers, the sessions have offered an opportunity to explore new ways of protecting victims of domestic violence. Williams said instead of choosing one or two prosecutors to travel to the mainland to study immigrant domestic violence issues, Attorney General Iver Stridiron decided to bring experts to the territory to educate his entire staff plus others active in the legal system.
The St. Thomas seminar was on Monday. The St. Croix one spans two days — Tuesday and Wednesday. Immigration specialists from Catholic Charities in San Francisco are taking part, talking about new tools to protect immigrants victimized by partners who seek to take advantage of their status as non-citizens.
The federal Violence Against Women Act signed into law by President Clinton has produced spinoffs, the said: Two new types of visas, called "T" and "U" visas, grant illegal immigrants who are victims of crime protection against deportation in exchange for their testimony against drug traffickers, abusers, kidnappers and batterers.
Monday's session provided excellent "training on battered immigrant women," Michal Rhymer, Family Resource Center executive director, said Tuesday. Before the new T-visas and U-visas were approved by Congress, she said, the only relief available was for women who were married to the men who abused them.
Williams said even though the new visas have been approved and made law, they still have to be written into the regulations used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Until that happens, he said, the protections they offer will not be in effect.
The seminars also focused on immigrant women who have legal status as a result of marriage. "We have a large immigrant community," Williams said. "Much of it is from Santo Domingo, and you have a large Haitian population. Most of the people who come in here are undocumented, and they hook up with a legal resident or a U.S. citizen, and the person who is in a position to help them will abuse them," he said.
Cultural considerations must be taken into account, he said. "For instance, in the Haitian community, the man is in charge." In such circumstances, a man could keep possession of a woman's passport and "take charge of everything that is needed for the lady and her child," he said, and in effect "keep this person in bondage."
In cases where the woman has legal status, Williams said, if the man is withholding the woman's documents, he may be reluctant to furnish them to prosecutors after becoming the subject of a complaint. "He's upset. He beat the hell out of her, and she has the nerve to call the police or go to the attorney general or go to the Family Resource Center," he said.
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