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Ten years ago, a scared girl of 16 stepped onto American soil for the first time. Ngozi Eboh had arrived in the District of Columbia from her native Nigeria at her father’s instruction, to be the wife of a much older man whom she barely knew.

In her case, the New World certainly lived up to its name. Of all the unfamiliar and unexpected aspects of life in this strange new land, the most surprising to Eboh were the blood, the bruises, the broken bones, the knocked-out teeth, the ruptures, and the rapes. Over the course of the next few years, her husband—her abuser—came damn close to killing her. Most notably when she was eight months and two weeks pregnant with their third child. “I was in real pain,” she recalls. “And I had to go to the hospital. I couldn’t walk. Two days after that I had my son.”

There’s a happy ending to Eboh’s story. After six years of worsening abuse, she gathered up her courage and her children and, in defiance of everything she had been raised to believe in, called the cops on the bastard.

Now, two years later, divorced and on her own, she’s once again healthy and happy, quick to make a joke or laugh at one. She lives with her three children in a small place near Georgia Avenue and barely makes ends meet by working as a caregiver in a home for retarded children. Excited nonetheless by the notion that all goals are within reach if only she works hard enough, Eboh is in the process of applying for a green card—the one her ex-husband wouldn’t help her get. Her dream is to become a U.S. citizen.

Unfortunately, happy endings like Eboh’s are harder and harder to come by these days—at least in the substantial community of recent immigrants residing in the District and its environs. Buried in the recent federal immigration reforms was a little-noticed provision that any legal immigrant convicted of domestic abuse be subject to immediate deportation. Immigrant advocates suggest that by sending heads of households and breadwinners back where they came from, the federal government may be revictimizing the women they sought to protect. Ayuda Inc., a legal clinic that provides counseling and legal representation to D.C.’s immigrant community, has seen only three new domestic-abuse clients walk through its doors since August. For years, Ayuda had a steady stream of 10 to 15 new women showing up with bruised faces and wide-eyed children in tow each month.

Eboh, who once was one of those women, thinks that the women avoid help because legislators have fired a bullet of unintended consequences that is hitting abused women and children.

“This law is so bad. It’s so very, very bad,” Eboh says.

They call it the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act—you’ve got to admire how they managed to crowbar the word “responsibility” into the thing. Such a tight fit.

Who could be against such a law? Damn few, as it turned out. The bill passed both the House and Senate by wide margins and was signed into law by President Clinton a month before the election.

The feds have always had unique leverage over aliens, even the ones here legally. While it’s true that if you’re a legal alien with a green card you share many of the rights of U.S. citizens—for example, the state cannot try you for a serious crime without providing you with counsel—but one right that you don’t share is the right to be here in the first place. Your presence in this country is regarded as a privilege, one that can be revoked at any time for specific reasons spelled out in the law.

There are any number of things legal aliens can do to get their asses thrown out of the country. And the distinction between what constitutes a deportable offense and what doesn’t can be slight at times. For instance, driving away from an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) official who asks for your papers isn’t a deportable offense, but doing so at a speed above the posted limit is. Go figure. Elsewhere the law is crystal clear: If you’re convicted of a violent felony, you’re gone.

But the immigration reform package created a new series of deportable offenses, including domestic abuse, child abuse, stalking, and violating a civil protection order. If a legal immigrant is convicted of any of these things, INS will grab him and throw him out.

On the face of it, who could possibly be against telling wife beaters, in effect, to go crawl back to their holes? “No one had any problem with that,” says a staff lawyer on the House subcommittee that herded the bill through Congress.

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Indeed, the provision was so uncontroversial that several of those in charge of negotiating or lobbying the issue didn’t even know about it. Asked for comment, Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, has to go look it up among the document’s 500 pages first. Once he does, he suggests that, “Before we, as a society, cave in to the idea that child abusers and wife beaters should be shielded from the consequences of their actions, we ought to give this a try.”

Sounds reasonable, but here is where the bullet begins to ricochet around the room.

Imagine a woman—call her Ngozi, for form’s sake—who is married to an abusive legal immigrant and who’s trying to get out of the relationship.

What’s she supposed to do? Call the cops? The District has a mandatory arrest policy in cases of domestic abuse. Which means that if the cops come and the man’s there, he’ll be arrested and jailed. Once the case is sucked into the maw of the system, it’s out of Ngozi’s hands. “It’s our decision whether to press charges,” says Robert Spagnoletti, chief of the domestic violence unit at the U.S. Attorney’s office. And the decision is generally to press ahead, he says. “We don’t go to diversion in domestic violence cases.” That means that if prosecutors have the evidence to get a conviction, an abuser has to either plead guilty or go to trial. If he’s convicted, under the new law he’ll be deported.

Which would leave Ngozi where? Most likely right across the aisle from him on the same outbound plane. “The first thing women fear is being deported themselves,” says Rosa Rivas, program coordinator for Hermanas Unidas, a support group for battered Latinas.

In truth, many of these women are here illegally themselves, and their only hope of getting documents is to remain the lawful wife of a legal immigrant. And even if a woman is a legal resident in her own right, she’s got other things to consider. If she dumps her breadwinner, how is she going to feed her kids, or, for that matter, herself? Courtesy of the Gingrich-led Congress and the Morris-led Clinton administration, neither legal nor illegal immigrants are eligible for many forms of public assistance anymore.

“I think there has been an awareness, ever since Prop 187, that it could be risky to go to any social services agency, because so much of Prop 187 was about denying any type of service,” says Suzanne Jackson, a domestic violence counselor at Ayuda. “So those people who are aware that there is now a new immigration bill sort of think about it in that way, like, ‘You better be careful who you go to talk to because you never know who’s going to report you to the INS.’”

Many women are willing to take steps on their own behalf to end abuse, but the irrevocableness of deportation would give many, including Eboh, pause.

Eboh, for one, says flatly, “If leaving him had meant that he would be deported, I could not have done it. His family worked hard to send him here. Our families back home know each other. I could not have done it.”

In the immigrant community, sending someone to jail is one thing. Having someone deported is something else again. “You certainly don’t want the community to believe that you had your husband deported,” Jackson says.

One of the peculiar things about this issue is the way it has people on all sides saying things you never thought you’d hear come out of their mouths.

In the crunchy-postered office of a Harvard-trained public interest lawyer—not far from a sign reading, “La violencia contra la mujer no es natural…—Denunciala!”—I sat and listened as the woman admitted, hesitantly, that she could not in good conscience advise abused women to report their abusers to the police anymore.

The same day, I listened as the executive director of a conservative legal foundation explained that if a woman begins a process that she knows will end up with her family torn apart, her husband deported, her means of livelihood taken away, her children left fatherless, and herself branded in her own community as a traitor and an ingrate, “She should be happy!”

If only it were that simple.

“This is a crude and heavy-handed type of law for dealing with what is a very complicated issue in family dynamics,” says Rex Wingerter, a Maryland-based immigration lawyer. “If a woman says, ‘I love Angelo, but he always beats me. I need some distance,’ she’s not talking about 5,000 miles of distance.”

Wingerter is currently handling a case—well, it’s pretty much over now, because INS hauled his client away just last week, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it—that involves a Kensington man who was by all accounts the sort of immigrant that made this nation what it is. Here was a man who had brought his family to this country from El Salvador eight years ago, worked tirelessly as a busboy in a dingy restaurant, and managed to save up enough to open his own landscaping business.

Two years ago, he touched his 13-year-old daughter in a sexual way. She confided in a school counselor, who called the police. He was convicted of third-degree sexual touching. He did time, went to counseling, got back with his family, tried to start over. Because he is not a citizen, he is now being deported.

Who cares? The guy molested his own daughter and got his walking papers. Who cares?

His wife, for one, who is about to lose her house, her husband, and her livelihood. His son, who has dropped out of high school to try to keep the business afloat. And his daughter, who feels responsible and is trying to handle the guilt the best she can.

“You know, they dealt with this situation as a family and resolved it,” says Wingerter. “She loves her father. She never thought it would come to this.”

And so people remain outside the protective arms of the law, fearful that while the one hand protects them, the other will send their loved ones packing. The absent women who cannot be found on Ayuda’s doorstep—these women are not even taking the chance that it will ever come to that. Instead they’re watching, weighing their options, and choosing to keep their pain well hidden within the confines of dysfunctional families. Down deep, where INS can’t find it and make it worse.

—Paul Belden