I came to the US about 9 years ago to work as an intern at my home country consulate. On paper, it was the perfect setting. I got to explore a new city, Philadelphia, and I loved life beyond every possible boundary. From the moment I moved in with some friends that lived in the area, I had my mind set on moving and working in the US, since it was clear that there were so many more opportunities for me compared to what my small countryside town in rural Europe had to offer. As my visa was about to expire, and I did want to do everything by the book, I consulted with a few immigration attorneys.
The results were disappointing: back in the day, the only (realistic) ways to move here legally involved either getting a job -not an internship- that would sponsor my green card, or get married to an American citizen. At the time I happened to have started dating someone I met on a dating website, and things were going very well. However, never once in my mind I thought I’d get married to a man I’d only known for 3 or 4 months, but that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t something I did, like many suggested, only to get a green card: I was truly in love with him.
My job search was not going anywhere, and I desperately wanted a better life for myself: I didn’t want any handouts or any pity, but I wanted a chance to live my American Dream and live, study and work in this country while paying taxes, supporting my community, following the law and generally be a productive member of society. Eventually I found good job at a prestigious university, one that could have possibly sponsored me and get me a green card, but there would have been many months’ worth of waiting, back home in Europe, not sure whether I could come back or not, and they made it very clear during the interview that they’d much rather not get involved with immigration proceedings and that the odds of me getting hired were much higher if I handled that whole mess myself (I later found out that it’s illegal, but I was a very young 23-year old back then).
So my boyfriend and I got married, and everything changed. Looking back, there were many red flags that popped up while we were dating, but either I didn’t see them, or didn’t want to admit it to myself, and they were ignored. My 5-year “sentence” officially started about a week after our wedding.
Gone were the long, sweet phone calls, the small gestures that only those who are madly in love do or think of, the unexpected roses for no reason at all, and the feeling that I was safe, part of a team, me and him against the world, for better or for worse.
The verbal violence started right away, and the physical, sexual, financial and emotional ones all followed in very rapid succession. He’d snap out of the blue, blamed every personal problem he had on me and, of course, reminded me every day that all it would have taken him was a phone call to Immigration, stating that our marriage was a scam, to have me on the first plane home, banned from coming back to the United States or, worse still, arrested for immigration fraud, then deported. Once again, I didn’t know any better. His threats, however horrifying, would have been very hard for him to put into practice, so to speak. The truth was, our marriage wasn’t a scam, it was a very real, very bad, violent marriage. Immigration doesn’t require you to be happily married, only to be married for purposes other than to get a green card; if things turned out not to work out between you and your spouse, well, that was your problem, not theirs, because in spite of the good faith you had when you signed the wedding certificate, you couldn’t really expect to even think about divorce papers until the time to get a temporary, then permanent green card (about 5 years) was up.
Believe me when I say I tried. I got counseling, I talked to lawyers, reached out to various programs designed to help battered women or rape victims (I was both), but the answer was always the same:
I was “too white, too educated, too smart, and too qualified” for anyone to help me. Yes, there was a law called “Violence Against Women Act” that was supposed to be in place to protect foreign partners of American spouses that got married in good faith but realized they were nothing but punching bags for criminally insane psychopaths. At that point, I’d already applied for a green card because of marriage and every single attorney told me that, sure, I could try to file a petition by myself, citing the abuse perpetrated by my spouse as grounds for a fault divorce and for asking Uncle Sam to protect me from further torture. However, I was advised, my chances of winning in court were extremely low. I wasn’t even a permanent resident yet, so I better suck it up or pack my bags.
Sounds like something that would never happen in America? Think again. The rationale behind the laws that allow a foreign national to become a permanent resident and, if they so choose, a citizen, after they marry an American partner is twofold: Immigration would really prefer if you didn’t move to the US at all, but they have to deal with the rights of American citizens to marry who they want. In order to make sure that Americans aren’t inconvenienced forever by having to support their foreign spouse (who can’t work or go to school or even volunteer without proper papers), the government must allow the foreign party to get a green card, a social security number etc. In theory, I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve never wanted to be a “kept woman”, a “lady of leisure”, who gets expensive manicures on her way to brunch with her friends, and who relies on her hard working husband to provide for her everything. In fact, I wanted to go to school, I wanted to work, and I wanted nothing more than to be independent-or at least an equal contributor to my household.
The problem with immigration laws is that they have been abused so much (or so the government claims), that they have to set a minimum length of time before the foreign national can in fact look for work, go to school and so on. If you were told that you wouldn’t be able to work for a number of months (usually about a year or so) after getting married, and that you would have to rely either on personal savings, or on your spouse, for anything from food to shelter to entertainment and travel, to small luxuries like a new pair of pants that fit you or a tasty meal in a restaurant you loved -all that because the government doesn’t want you to work- you would probably be so upset that you’d organize protests, you’d invoke your rights of any kind, and you may even consider suing Uncle Sam. One thing is choosing, in agreement with your spouse, to stay at home, maybe raise your children, and be a housewife (a very difficult job that I respect very much, but that was not what I wanted to do). Another is to be your spouse’s defendant and property. Sure that’s not something that is not only encouraged, but forced upon, foreign women (and men, too) who marry an American. The home of the free and the land of the brave isn’t the kind of barbaric country that sanctions this sick dynamic. Expect it is. Until you’re a permanent resident, you are a beta-minus person. You don’t have very many civil rights, and you can try and fight for your independence, but the good old “Violence against Women Act” is so rarely enforced that your best bet is leave the country or pick the right spouse. If you choose to stay, and made the unfortunate mistake of marrying an abuser, you have to serve time in your own home, in bed with them, stuck there hoping they don’t get ahold of a deadly weapon and take the violence to the extreme.
I survived. I took up martial arts, I went to the doctor or the ER every time he hurt me to document the extent of my injuries and create a paper trail (I still have the folder, and it’s about 1.5 inches thick). I learned who my friends really were when I called for help, usually to be escorted to the hospital in the middle of the night. I had strong female friends and a few male friends become what I used to call “my bodyguards”. I confided in a couple who lived in the same building as my husband and I, and they gave me a key to their apartment so that I could go hide somewhere in case of an emergency. I also learned that the police doesn’t really like to respond to 911 calls about domestic disturbances because, among other reasons, the abused partner tends to act very hostile toward law enforcement once they show up, and those calls are the ones after which most officers get injured or killed. At one point I filed for a restraining order against my husband and I was granted a temporary one that stated that he’d have to be evicted from the apartment we shared, among other clauses. I feared for my life, I’d told the judge, who didn’t hesitate to sign the piece of paper that was supposed to be my way out to safety. Except a restraining order has to be served, and my spouse was nowhere to be found at that particular time, and by the same order, I couldn’t contact him in any way. This resulted in me having to be forced out of my house, with my cat and a small suitcase, and seek emergency shelter. Until the order was served, I couldn’t leave my “safe location”, unless escorted by police officers. That looks very good when you’re a week away from starting a teaching job and you envision going to class in the back of a police car. In the end, unable to serve the restraining order to my ex, I had to go back home or risk losing my home, my job, and yes, my temporary green card, too.
My ex was finally arrested when he showed up at my office -I had just started a new job, funnily enough, in law enforcement- and made death threats to me and to my colleagues. The trial lasted 2 very long years, and I wasn’t allowed to file for divorce until it was over. By then, though, I had taken my oath and was an American citizen. Boy, was it good to finally be able to call the police if my ex tried to intimidate me (eventually he was remanded). I had rights. I could travel. I could go home to my parents and not worried about being sent back because a TSA agent felt like it.
“If I cannot be a good example, I’ll be horrible warning”: I read this quote somewhere and always thought it was very appropriate to describe my order (it’s been attributed to too many authors for me to give you an exact citation). So be it. My ex is in prison and not getting out anytime soon. This is good news, in a way, but he’s doing time for the incident during which he threatened my colleagues and I, not for any of the instances of abuse, rape, and violence he perpetrated during our 5-year marriage. I’ll take it. It’s not right, but it’s ok, at least he’s behind bars and won’t be able to hurt anyone else.
I wish I had a good pun, or a grandiose happy ending to my story, but I don’t. The only thing I can say is that, if you are in a situation like I was, you’re not alone. Please be safe. Please think twice before risking your life. I’m warning you now, but one day I hope I won’t have to. In an election year where civil rights are very much the topic of the day, please remember of those people whose rights don’t exist, by law, because they happen to be born somewhere else. Immigrants are the invisible slaves and it happens every day.