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Story of Survival: The Violence Against Women Act

Isabel was only 15 when she fell in love with an older man named Ben.  He told her he was 25, but, in reality, he was 31. This would be one of the many lies Ben would tell her. She loved the way he made her feel at first.  However, a few weeks into their relationship, he forced her to have sex with him. She had never been with anyone else, and she was scared the first time it happened. He became possessive and jealous.  During the first incident of physical violence, Isabel was still only 15 years old. She was showering when he pulled her out wet and naked and accused her of cheating on him. He threw her on the floor and started recording while she was naked and crying. He pushed her down the stairs and dragged her to the garage.  He told her that she could sleep there or leave. She said she wanted to leave but needed clothes. He pushed her out of the garage naked and closed the door. Her friend came out and gave her his clothes to cover herself. She called a friend and left. She felt humiliated and all alone, but she did not want to go back to him. Unfortunately, he started following her, trying to convince her to return. She did not want to. He told her that she needed to be with him because he had HIV and if his plan worked, she probably had it too. She did not believe him, as she thought he was trying to trap her. However, she found out she was pregnant, and when she went to see a doctor, tests determined that she was in fact HIV positive. 

She felt her world shattering around her. Was she going to die? She was terrified that her child would also have the virus. The doctors gave her medicines to prevent the HIV from passing to her child.  Ben had no remorse for what he had done, and Isabel fell into a deep depression. He convinced her to marry him, and he promised that he would take care of her and their baby. However, the abuse never stopped. It only got worse. When she was 5 weeks pregnant, he dragged her out of their apartment, ripped her clothes off, and left her outside naked and pregnant.  She hid in a corner hoping no one would see her.  An hour later, he finally opened the door and told her she can never argue with him and that she always has to do exactly as he said. 

When her baby girl was born, Isabel was terrified she would also have HIV and would die. The doctors ran tests on the baby for the first 3 months of her life, and thankfully, Isabel had not passed on the virus. Isabel was so relieved, and she described it as a moment of happiness that she had not felt in years!

After the baby was born, Isabel remembers a horrific incident that started when her husband wrongfully claimed she was cheating on him. He chased her down the street.  She felt something hit her head, and she fell to the ground. He got on top of her, began punching her, and ripped off her clothes. While she was naked, Ben started kicking Isabel so hard she thought he was going to kill her. Imagine being naked, on the street with people that may be able to see you in this demeaned and embarrassed state. Isabel was humiliated. After kicking her, Ben dragged her to their apartment, threw her in the bathroom, and locked the door. She fell asleep in there. In the morning she was crying because she was in pain from the beating and also very cold. He never cared. She never reported it.

Isabel never felt strong enough to leave him because she did not think anyone would want her since she had HIV. She also wanted her daughter to grow up in a family with both a mother and father; however, she realized the violence her child was witnessing was hurting her. Isabel recalls one of the last incidents of abuse looking up as she was being punched on the floor and only seeing her daughter crying as she looked straight at her. Isabel could not forgive her husband for that, and she hated herself for staying with him, for allowing the abuse to continue, and for having HIV. 

She finally got the courage to report the domestic violence to the police, and she filed an Injunction for Protection Against Domestic Violence, which was granted. She came to the Legal Aid Society for help. We determined that she had a strong case under the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”). Her husband had never filed for her immigration documents, as he used her undocumented status as a means to control her. We assured Isabel she did not need him and we would be by her side throughout the entire immigration process. We prepared the legal documents with the required evidence and filed them with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. As a result, Isabel received a work authorization card. This is what she desperately needed, as she was able to legally work and earn money to be able to provide for herself and her child. It also allowed her to get a driver’s license. Her VAWA case was eventually approved, and she recently became a legal permanent resident of the U.S. She was ecstatic! She no longer needed to rely on her abusive husband for food or money. Her child no longer witnesses her father striking her mother. As we have seen, children that grow up in an abusive home are more likely to be abusers or be abused themselves. Exposure to abuse is detrimental to a child’s physical, emotional, and educational well-being. The cycle in this case was thankfully broken, as her child now lives in an environment full of love and free of violence.

Domestic Violence is a crime of power. Being an undocumented immigrant presents another layer of obstacles. VAWA provides protection to all victims of this horrible crime regardless of one’s immigration status. Being able to become a legal permanent resident allows victims the opportunity and resources to take care of themselves and their children. All victims of domestic violence need to know that they will be offered the help that they need and deserve to move on with their lives and bring perpetrators to justice. Each of us can, and must, work together to identify, report, and prevent violence. 

If you have questions regarding VAWA or any other immigration matters that the Legal Aid Society handles, please contact Ana Bernal Roberts at  For information on how to become a financial donor or help with our fundraising efforts, please contact Donna Haynes, Development Director, at

Ana Bernal Roberts, Esq., practices immigration law for the Legal Aid Society of the OCBA. She has been an OCBA member since 2015. 

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