I have been a community organizer for 20 years, for more than half of that in my local neighborhood. Street organizing they call it. Working at that level you see things, some miraculous, some disturbing. I have seen neighborhood leaders take leaps of faith, engage in acts of courage that would humble the most cynical. I have also seen things that shook me. That made me angry or frightened or sad. Some unforgettable.
I remember a middle aged man, standing in his doorway, pleading with me to help him get gangs out of his neighborhood, shrunken with fear but desperate to protect his family. I remember a mother walking me through her basement apartment. Water six inches deep in places. She showed me the holes where the rats came in, and where her daughter’s crib was, and explained that her landlord charged her $800 cash every month for these luxury accommodations.
I remember the fear and the desperation these people experienced, and I remember how it felt when we won those issues, and those leaders could feel safe again.
But when I am really down, I remember Elena.
The House proposal endangers victims and perpetuates further abuse. It would even allow abusive partners in domestic violence cases to provide input as to whether their victim should qualify for immigration relief.
Elena was a great neighborhood leader. She came to the organization because of our work in schools. She had two little boys attending kindergarten and first grade. They were both in overcrowded classrooms, finding it hard to learn, and Elena wanted to do something about that.
When she found out about the work we were doing it was like a light turned on for her. You could see her quickly grasp the dynamics of power, the importance of community. She already knew how to work hard, and she was fearless. In no time she was helping with planning, fundraising, meeting with powerful people. I had hopes she would join the board, maybe even take the thing over one day.
Then she came to a meeting with a black eye.
Everyone pretended not to see it. Everyone averted their eyes. But you could feel the tension. Elena, true to form, didn't shirk. She ran the meeting well, drove us to conclusions and even led the evaluation, critiquing herself along with others, always striving to do better.
I waited for her after the meeting. Asked her if she was OK. She didn't even bother to pretend. "Do I look OK?" she asked. I offered to help her. "What help can you give me Gabe? I don't have papers remember? He says if I run away he will tell la migra (slang for immigration authorities). I'll be deported and my boys will have to stay here with him."
I didn't know what to do, but promised I would look into it. And she went home. Over the next few weeks, many of the people who had been at that meeting came and talked about what they had seen. Some offered to help her, some to hide her. Some of the men at the meeting offered to, ah, talk to her husband. But always the same response. And then what? She doesn't have papers remember?
You see, this was before the Violence Against Women Act was passed by Congress in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005. The law was improved over the years which added protections for some immigrant women in danger of domestic violence. But that law and those improvements didn’t exist then for Elena. And so we could not help her. She had to go home.
And now the law is up for renewal AGAIN. But people like Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), are playing political games with the lives of women like Elena.
You see, for people like these Republicans, immigrant women, if they don’t have papers, are not worthy of protection, are not worthy of help. In fact, these women would be put in further danger of abuse under their bill, HR 4970.
The House proposal endangers victims and perpetuates further abuse. It would even allow abusive partners in domestic violence cases to provide input as to whether their victim should qualify for immigration relief. Abusers who could have adjusted the immigration status of their spouse and chose not to as a tool of abuse and fear will be in a position to block the victim’s access to this critical remedy for battered immigrants. Informing and allowing alleged abusers to provide input in these cases puts victims at risk of retaliation.
I wonder what Republicans who support HR 4970 would do if they were faced with someone like Elena. Would they display the same kind of courage that she did every day I knew her? Would they be honest about their bigotry, explain how women's lives were being used as political footballs? I doubt it. I think they would hide behind platitudes and false patriotism. I think they would avoid looking at her face, mumble something about rule of law, and retreat to their comfortable, safe, office, or their comfortable, safe, home.
The last time I saw Elena was about six weeks after that meeting. I saw her at school, picking up her boys. I asked her where she had been. It had been weeks since she was at a meeting. She shrugged. “We lived in a car for two days, but I could not do that to my boys anymore, so I went home. My husband doesn't like me going to the meetings anymore.” Once again I tried to convince her to get help, explained she had the whole neighborhood in her corner. The answer was still the same. "Y que?" And then? She knew we couldn't protect her from immigration officials. There was no VAWA, there was no safety.
I never saw Elena again. Except when I'm feeling down. Then I see her face clear as day.
In 1994 they wrote VAWA, and in 2012 some leaders in the Senate and the House showed enough courage to make sure VAWA reauthorization protected women like Elena. And, despite all the best efforts of people like Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) to have a vote on her bill, HR 4271, the limited Republican version of VAWA is up for reauthorization right now. I cannot stress enough the importance of passage of Gwen Moore’s bill. Please, take a second and contact House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor and demand they allow improvements to their dangerous bill when it reaches the House floor tomorrow. I know I will.
Gabe Gonzalez is National Campaign Director of Campaign for Community Change.