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Latin America: Domestic Violence Forces Women to Migrate

Walk against Domestic Violence and commemoration of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Chaguanas, Trinidad & Tobago, November 29, 2008. Photo by CWGL via Flickr under creative commons license.

When she cooked, her husband smashed the plates to the floor. When a meal was not ready, her husband hit her face, nearly causing her to lose her left eye and leaving it blue and black. When her family visited, she told them she had fallen on the stairs. Her older sister, to whom she confided about the abuse, didn’t believe her. “My sister said, ‘I don’t believe you because he’s very nice and he’s a nice guy’.”

These are the memories Cristina Garcia has of her marriage to a man who presented a very different public face to the one she saw at home. Garcia, who asked her real name not be used for safety concerns, is from El Salvador, a country where domestic violence is dismissed by police as a “temporary family problem”.

There were no women shelters. Men had the final say; they were even able to keep their wives indoors. Since Garcia’s departure over 20 years ago, advocacy groups have begun to champion women’s rights. Among them is SHARE El Salvador, which lists empowering women in its mission statement. Yet, as of 2011, 640 women are killed in El Salvador every year, or one woman every 13 hours.

One recent survivor of violence against women in Latin America is Blanca Medina, who endured rapes by four different men in her native El Salvador. The fifth one raped her in Mexico when she was crossing the border. Medina now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Currently living in San Jose, California, she avoided deportation at the eleventh hour due to the efforts of Department of Homeland Security attorney Matthew Muller, who asserts his client’s mental health played a role in her skipping her court hearing. He argued: “It is a medical condition, it’s not just a bald assertion people make. It’s hard for her to conceive of returning to that country.”

While immigrants are barred from  making asylum claims more than180 days after missing a hearing, Medina’s attorney argues felons and  terrorists receive more leniency than abused women in halting deportation to nations where they have a “reasonable fear” their lives are in danger.

Moreover, Medina is not protected by President Obama’s recent immigration reform which gives refuge to undocumented immigrants, as she crossed the border as an adult rather than a child. Despite being denied this protection, she did receive asylum through LJS.

Cristina Garcia was relatively fortunate. She immigrated to the US with a yearly work permit, which was maintained through a Clinton-era policy. Other victims of domestic violence are not so lucky.

Besides meeting other strict policies for asylum, battered women must demonstrate that they are treated by their abuser as “subordinates” and “little better than property”, and that physical abuse is widely accepted in their country. Although Garcia says that things have improved for women in her country, largely due to the efforts of other Salvadoran women, this is not universally the case.

One Mexican woman, identified in court papers only by her initials L.R., requested asylum on the grounds that she would be murdered by her common-law husband were she forced to return home. According to court documents, he raped her, held her at gunpoint, stole from her and tried to burn her alive upon discovering she was pregnant.

Although the Department of Homeland Security recognised the possibility that L.R. and other battered women could receive asylum, in 2008 Bush administration lawyers argued that despite her common-law husband’s brutality, she and other battered women did not meet the standards of American asylum law.

Despite this, L.R. won. As of 4 August 2010, the immigration judge presiding over her case granted L.R. asylum in a summary order. In other words, asylum was granted and included a notation that it was a result of “stipulation of the parties”, according to staff attorney for the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies Blaine Bookey. He notes that, although the case is a “widely heralded victory”, a lack of precedent and changing policy positions have resulted in “contradictory and arbitrary outcomes” in other cases.

Women’s choices are scant when home is a dangerous place. They can’t depend on police protection, either. Like Salvadoran police, Mexican officials dismissed L.R.’s reports of violence as a “private matter” and a judge she petitioned for help tried to seduce her. As L.R. states, “In Mexico, men believe they have a right to abuse their women because [the women] are like a possession.”

Garcia has a full-time job as housekeeper in a private boy school, is a homeowner, a mother of two, and a recent American citizen. But despite her optimistic outlook, she grows sombre when she recalls what it was like to be treated ”like a possession”. She knew her husband for three years prior to her marriage, and was initially happy with the union. But after the first two years of the marriage, her husband changed dramatically, becoming “very mean”, as she recalls.

Two years after it started, the abuse did not abate, and Garcia’s husband kept her from doing things she enjoyed, such as playing softball, telling her that as his wife, she should stay in the house. One day, when her husband was at work, Garcia called her older brother who was then living in Boston. He told her, “You have everything in the house. You don’t have to come here to the United States. Here is not for you. You have a good job in El Salvador. You have your family, you have your husband. He’s a nice guy.”

When a younger brother pledged his support, Garcia came to the United States, where she worked long hours in a bakery. She was able to come to the US through a yearly work permit, and received her green card eight years ago.

A proud new American, Garcia shays she loves this country in part because of the police protection offered to abused women.

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About The Author(s)

Carrie Stanziola

Carrie Stanziola has had a long-standing passion for writing about gender, economic and social justice issues. She is a Boston-based freelance writer, and holds a Bachelor's of Arts in literature from Bard College. She is a contributor to

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