Undocumented abuse survivors break silence on bus

Travel to State House seeking passage of Safe Communities Act

THE PARKING LOT STOOD EMPTY Wednesday morning, but then women in groups of two or threedressed in white shirts, began streaming inmurmuring about the humidity in Spanish. A yellow school bus pulled up. Women began smiling and climbing aboard, reconnecting over bottled water. One woman handed out apples and snacksSandy Rodriguez, 16, sat down in one seat, and pointed out an empty spot to her mother, Maria Rodriguez.  

The women, undocumented survivors of domestic violence, had chosen the random meeting spot in Waltham to avoid former abusers from finding them. But they were also concerned about being followed by US Customs and Immigration Enforcement officials. 

Despite that fear, they were heading to the Massachusetts State House in hopes of convincing legislators to support the Safe Communities Act, a bill that would restrict cooperation between local police departments, sheriffs, and federal immigration officials.  

Maria Rodriguez, 42, came to the US illegally 20 years ago to work and send money back to her family in Guatemala. She has a restraining order against a man that she was married to for many years. He is Sandy’s stepfather (Sandy was born in the US) and the father of Sandy’s brothers.  

“I was concerned police would arrest my mother because she was undocumented,” Sandy said, describing years of alleged abuse. The man, who had a legal immigration status, would tell Maria and her daughter that if they told police, she would be deported and he would get custody of the children.  

“For years he hit and beat my mother,” she said. “I would try to defend her. He said that whatever happened in those four walls stayed within our four walls.” Eventually he punched Sandy, then only 14, for her efforts. Her mother said they would someday escape the relationship, but it didn’t happen for another two years. 

On April 1, 2017, weeks after a particularly heated incident, Maria was taking the children to church when her husband said to leave the kids at home. “My children go where I go,” Maria said.  

As she and the children left church that afternoon, three Waltham Police officers surrounded the car. Her husband, they said, accused her of hitting him. Sandy said that’s when she’d had enough.  

“I said, Mami, this is it. This is our chance to tell police. I was worried they would arrest her because she was undocumented, but it just wasn’t safe.” 

Maria said she was afraid. “It was a terrible fear. I thought they would arrest me and take me to immigration. That’s what he said they would do to me. I still have that terror,” she said. 

Maria was interviewed by police for hours, and the police went to their home. Luckily, her husband was not there. The police found ample evidence of the abuse and acquired a restraining order. No charges were filed against Maria. 

Two years later, he has continued to respect the restraining order, and Maria lives with her three children alone. Sandy, a Waltham High School freshman, has chipped in to support her family as a cashier for Masket Basket. “I give thanks to God because this was all a hard process,” Sandy said, glancing over at her mother. 

Sandy Rodriguez, 16, recounts her experience with domestic abuse at a press event for supporters of the Safe Communities Act.

Maria said she wants other undocumented women to know that in some places, including Waltham, it’s safe to talk to police about situations of domestic abuse, and that the department won’t call ICE about their status. “We need to feel protected. In another place, my experience might not have been the same, she said. 

She searched for tissues deep in her purse while another woman got up to speak on the moving bus. Everyone grew silent. 

“Today is going to be historic. Not just because there’s victims of domestic and sexual violence, but because there are undocumented immigrants here who are afraid,” Gladys Ortiz said in Spanish. Ortiz is the court advocate coordinator of REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, an organization that serves domestic violence survivors in 27 Massachusetts communities.  

 

Gladys Ortiz speaks to a bus full of immigrant domestic abuse passengers en route to the State House.

The bus rolled up to the State House, and the women streamed in to the historic building. Zoila Lopez, 48, reassured other women who were worried about being in a public building.  

“I am here because God loves me,” Lopez, herself a victim of domestic violence, told a crowd of legislators and reporters. “I could be six feet underground in this moment.”  

Domestic abuse survivor Zoila Lopez speaks to legislators in support of the Safe Communities Act.

She said she was freed from eight years of domestic violence in 2010, when she reported her situation to authorities. Her husband was deported back to El Salvador. 

“The fear of being deported then was bad, but it’s worse now,” she said, mentioning the advent of President Donald Trump’s stringent immigration policies. “It’s a different era. I want legislators to focus on saving lives, and not focus so much on immigration status.”  

Lopez spoke to Reps. Ruth Balser of Newton and Liz Miranda, of Boston, who cosponsored the House version of the bill, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton who sponsored the Senate version 

A key focus of the bill is something called a 287g, an agreement that local police departments and sheriffs have with ICE. Three counties, Plymouth, Bristol, and Barnstable, along with the Department of Corrections, have contract with federal immigration enforcement. The legislation would do away with that, prohibiting 287g agreements that would deputize local authorities to enforce federal immigration law.  

It would bar law enforcement and court personnel from asking people about their status unless required by law. The State Police already have a similar policy. Many immigrants fear that calling 911 or speaking to police will lead to separation from family members – especially children – which advocates say makes them more vulnerable to domestic abuse. 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

It would also require local police to obtain an immigrant’s consent in the event ICE were to question them in custody, using a form that explains their right to decline an interview or have their own attorney present.  

“It’s a life or death situation in many communities,” Miranda said, adding that she was personally a survivor of domestic and sexual violence. Balser told reporters that she expects the bill to have a hearing this fall.