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Scars remain: Mother rebuilds life after domestic violence

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Connie White poses for a photo with her two boys, Joshua and Isaiah. White, whose parents brought her into the United States when she was 14, felt trapped in an abusive marriage because she was an undocumented immigrant. (J.D. Long-García/CATHOLIC SUN)

A Casa Grande police officer told her she needed to go to the emergency room. She brushed it off, said she was OK. She was just worried about her kids.

“Ma’am,” the officers said, leading her to a mirror. She looked at herself.

“I couldn’t even see my face,” she said.

Her two children saw their father pummel their mother. Isaiah, still crawling, followed his mother as she exchanged blows with her husband. Joshua, a couple years older, watched from under the kitchen table.

They saw their father throw their mother against the wall. When she got up from the floor, they saw their father break their mother’s nose with the heel of his palm.

“I’ll bury you in the desert one of these days,” her husband told her, according to the police report. He grabbed his cell phone and keys and left.

She turned to her two children and found Isaiah’s white pajamas soaked red. She panicked, fearing she’d accidentally hit him while defending herself. But all of the blood was hers.

Connie White was one of many undocumented immigrants that, because of their legal status, feel trapped in domestic violence situations. In this case, her spouse was a U.S. citizen who regularly threatened to have her deported if she spoke up.

“People feel they have no recourse,” said William DeSantiago, an attorney with Catholic Charities Immigration Services. When a spouse says they’ll go to immigration, it’s not an idle threat, he said.

In some cases, battered spouses return to their husbands or wives because they have so little support, DeSantiago said. Catholic Charities deals with such domestic violence situations every week.

The Violence Against Women Act, by which spouses or children of lawful U.S. residents can self-petition for legal residency, often comes into play. While the Senate recently reauthorized the legislation, H.R. 4271, the House is taking up its own version, H.R. 4970, which critics say diminishes protection of immigrant women and children who are victims of abuse.

Many undocumented immigrants simply don’t have a pathway to legal residency, DeSantiago said. Of the more than 3,000 immigrants that came to Catholic Charities for a consultation last year, only 1,100 had reason to open a petition.

Crosier Brother Jim Lewandowski, who has worked with immigrants in Phoenix, Nebraska and Minnesota for years, has come across domestic violence issues in his work.

“If the husband gets put away, who supports her?” he said, explaining that even if both husband and wife are undocumented, reporting domestic violence is difficult. He says abuse also happens when undocumented men marry women who are U.S. citizens. Women in these situations sometimes take advantage of their undocumented husbands, benefiting from their income.

“For the undocumented person who married an American citizen, the promise of a future green card carries a lot of weight,” Bro. Jim said. “If there’s domestic abuse, for some of the people I know, the last person they’d be talking to is the police.”

Calling the police would mean facing all the immigration questions themselves.

Backstory

By the time White finally called the police, she’d been through a history of abuse.

She and her husband conceived their first child when her husband was married to another woman. He and his mother came to White and suggested she have an abortion.

She refused. Abortion was unthinkable.

“Children are not something that can be disposed of,” she said. “They are yours — they come from you.”

Her respect for the sanctity of human life comes from, paradoxically, the lack of respect she felt as a child.

“My mom had so many kids,” she said. “My mom abused us when we were little. If we didn’t bleed, then we didn’t learn our lesson.”

White is one of eight children. When she was a child, her mother told her this: “When you were born, I went to sleep with the dogs because I couldn’t stand you.”

White’s family brought her to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, when she was 14. That was in 1995. Her father was a farmer, and he wasn’t making enough to provide for his eight children.

Fewer restrictions made it easier to enter the country then. At first her father cleaned houses, but then learned to be a mechanic. When he’d get home, he never wanted to hear anyone’s problems — certainly didn’t want to hear any “girl talk,” White said.

Her sisters got married early. She was interested in college, so she would babysit and clean houses to afford community college.

Her father was disappointed in her when she began dating a Caucasian man.

“White men do drugs,” her father said. “They do crazy things — they hit women.”

When she began seeing her now-ex-husband, her family severed ties with her. They wouldn’t take her back, even after she was pregnant.

So White lived on the streets for months. She gave birth to Joshua before her husband came to her promising to divorce his current wife. He even quoted Scripture to convince her to marry him.

They dated for eight months and were married Dec. 12, 2004.

When Isaiah was conceived, her husband, again, demanded an abortion. And White refused again.

One afternoon — she was four months pregnant — her husband made her a cup of coffee. She drank it. The next thing she remembers is waking up in an emergency room. A nurse asked her what had happened.

“What? I don’t know?” White said as she came to.

“The baby is coming,” the nurse said. “Why is your stomach bruised?”

“I probably fell,” she told the nurse.

She believes her husband had beaten her badly, likely in an effort to kill their unborn child. She’d overdosed on cocaine — presumably in the coffee — though, as she told the nurse, “I never did any of that.”

Miraculously, Isaiah wasn’t born that day. He held on for a couple months, but then was born prematurely. He had to stay in the hospital for several weeks after his birth.

When she threatened to turn her husband into the police, he threatened to have her deported. She would never see Joshua or Isaiah again, he told her.

“It happens all the time,” said Jose Robles, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Phoenix Diocese. “The abuser threatens the victim with deportation.”

His office receives many calls related to domestic violence. The spouses often don’t report the abuse for years, believing things will eventually change.

“It’s a systemic problem that hasn’t come to the forefront,” Robles said. The culture among the undocumented community is one of silence and fear, he said. Things that need to be reported to law enforcement simply aren’t.

At her husband’s insistence, White began cleaning offices at night so she could still care for her children during the day.

White conceived again. This time her husband and his mother enlisted the help of the pastor of their non-denominational church. He too urged her to have an abortion, but she refused again.

Her husband came back from work one day and started kicking her in the stomach. She couldn’t get away.

“So I went to the hospital the next day and they told me my baby was dead,” she said. It was Thanksgiving.

She and her husband conceived a fourth time. At first, her husband acted normal. But then she caught him with another woman in their house. After the woman left, he beat her again, and she lost the child.

Connie White poses for a photo with her two boys, Joshua and Isaiah, in her Phoenix apartment. White felt trapped in an abusive marriage. (J.D. Long-García/CATHOLIC SUN)

Seeing red

The day Isaiah’s clothes were red with White’s blood was the day things changed. The police officer brought her to the mirror to see herself. She didn’t recognize her face, but her situation came into focus.

The police report notes a blood-stained towel near the entrance, another on the washing machine. There were bloody, smeared finger prints on the front door. White’s husband also told police he loved her.

White lost a lot of blood and was rushed to the emergency room. Once there, she met people who would help her leave her husband. She had rights, even as an undocumented immigrant. She divorced her husband.

“No one in my family has gotten a divorce,” White said. “It should have been a sad day, but it wasn’t.”

Free legal advice and representation came from DeSantiago’s office at Catholic Charities.

“Catholic Charities did everything for free,” White said. “I had nothing, and I was living on food from trash cans.”

In the three-year legal process, Catholic Charities helped White with food, employment, clothes and counseling.

She received a visa, won full custody and half of her ex-husband’s business. “All I wanted was a chance to finish my degree,” she said. She did that. White, who supports herself and her boys with a full-time job, plans to return to school to become a nurse.

But the scars remain.

Her ex-husband, who used to introduce her as the house cleaner, would make her look at herself in the mirror.

“He’d tell me he was with me out of pity,” she said. “He told me I was ugly, that no one would ever care for me.”

He would tell her: “That’s why you can’t have my kids. Because they’d turn out so ugly.”

“But look at them,” she said, pointing to a photo of Isaiah and Joshua. “They’re not ugly.” And neither is she.

There are no mirrors in her apartment now.

“I’m here, doing my own thing, living my life,” she said. “It feels good not to be insulted by someone close to you.”

J.D. Long-Garcia is the former editor of The Catholic Sun. He joined the staff in 2004. J.D., a lay Dominican, studied journalism and psychology at Arizona State University, philosophy at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and theology at the Graduate Theological Union. He's taught classes at the Kino Institute, worked as an outreach intern at All Saints Catholic Newman Center, led a deanery confirmation program in Berkeley, Calif., and served as a catechist for children of various ages. He was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

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