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Crystal Fernandez, left, and Gloria James, West Coast MCC immigration staff, work together to help some of the most vulnerable immigrants – those who have suffered domestic violence, rape or sexual assault. (MCC Photo/Jennifer Deibert)

Crystal Fernandez, left, and Gloria James, West Coast MCC immigration staff, work together to help some of the most vulnerable immigrants – those who have suffered domestic violence, rape or sexual assault. (MCC Photo/Jennifer Deibert)

Advocating for our neighbor

Emily Will
July 19, 2013


AKRON, Pa. – The green card that Francisca held in her hand for the first time on May 30 represented not only freedom to live in the U.S. legally, but also freedom from fear that she would be separated by deportation from her two American-born daughters.

Francisca’s green card, an identification card attesting to her permanent resident status in the U.S., meant that her former husband could no longer threaten to turn her into immigration authorities if she reported his abuse. Instead, she has a pathway to U.S. citizenship. (The names of Francisca and her children have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Francisca migrated to the U.S. in March 1997 when she was just 21 working at whatever jobs she could get – restaurant dishwasher or housecleaner.

She had a daughter, Sara, a year later, raising her as a single parent until she married a U.S. citizen in 2006. When she became pregnant in 2008, her husband began to abuse her verbally and physically. Once she gave birth to Ana, Francisca’s husband threatened to have her deported if she tried to leave with her daughters.

During a visit in 2010, Francisca’s father became worried about his daughter’s safety and called the police. When they arrived, Francisca’s husband had already fled, but he was arrested a few days later. While serving a two-year sentence, Francisca’s husband continued to threaten her from jail, claiming he would obtain custody of Ana because he was a U.S. citizen.

Francisca’s pastors referred her to Gloria James, the immigration program coordinator for West Coast Mennonite Central Committee in Upland, Calif., when they learned about Francisca’s history of abuse and her fear of being separated from her daughters.

When James heard her story, she knew Francisca was a prime candidate for legal residence through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This act allows undocumented victims of domestic violence, rape or sexual assault by a U.S. citizen to obtain lawful status. VAWA exists, in part, so that abusers cannot use the victim’s immigration status to prevent the victim from calling the police or seeking safety, according to a White House fact sheet.

Francisca was able to apply for legal residency through the help of West Coast MCC immigration staff. James and her colleague, immigration staff associate Crystal Fernandez who works in Reedley, Calif., guide immigrants through the maze of U.S. immigration policies.

West Coast MCC established the immigration program in the late 1980s at the request of Anabaptist churches in California who worked with undocumented people in and beyond their congregations. The pastors and MCC saw the need to keep families together, to advocate for just laws and to provide immigration education plus practical advice on specific cases.

The program is seen as “highly reputable,” said Sheri Plett Wiedenhoefer, West Coast MCC executive director, especially since MCC immigration staff were accredited by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) five years ago. This BIA recognition allows West Coast MCC to assist people in legal proceedings.

Francisca’s case was one of about 32 that West Coast MCC worked with in 2012 using VAWA or the petition for a U visa, which allows victims of violent crimes to become legal residents. Each case requires many hours of work and can take years to process, James said. Francisca’s case was active for two years.

Victims must provide exhaustive documentation, including police and medical reports, James said, and the process often re-traumatizes the women. Applicants are required to tell their painful story multiple times.

James often listens to difficult stories that reinforce the need for MCC’s presence in the field. Many lack the money or time to seek professional counseling. Through referrals to outside agencies, victims of crime can receive counseling and services to assist them in healing from past trauma.

“This group of victims, our brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t often have the monetary resources or information they need to speak out. MCC is acting with compassion to empower women, especially when they are the most vulnerable,” James said. “Everyone needs an advocate.”

Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ