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Gimme Shelter

A federal crime-victims unit in St. Albans puts abused immigrants on a safer path


Published November 10, 2010 at 6:41 a.m.

  • Stefan Bumbeck

Ismina Jones says she married her high school sweetheart for love, not a green card. At the time, she believed they’d spend the rest of their lives together. That was before the fateful night in October 2007 when, in a fit of rage, he nearly ended her life.

Their relationship wasn’t always violent, she says. Jones met her husband-to-be when she was only 16, shortly after her family moved from Crown Heights, N.Y., to East Orange, N.J. Born in Haiti, Jones had been brought to the United States at age 5 by her father. He left her with an aunt and uncle for a chance at a better life.

Jones says her immigration status never became an issue until she was a teenager. That’s when all her friends started getting jobs, taking driver’s ed and having “adult responsibilities.” She couldn’t do those things.

“I didn’t exist, technically,” she says. “I didn’t have a Social Security number; I didn’t have an official identity. I just went off a name.”

One day, a male classmate moved in next door. At first, Jones remembers, she thought of him as “just a regular Joe Schmo.” But over time their friendship blossomed into a love affair. Eventually, the young couple dropped out of high school and moved in together. Soon they relocated to Brattleboro to live with a family friend.

But, as neither had a high school diploma, and Jones couldn’t work legally, the pair’s living situation deteriorated rapidly. Within months, they were out on the streets … and expecting a baby. Two days after Jones’ 18th birthday, the couple got married in a Vermont homeless shelter.

Despite the challenges, Jones’ dream of becoming a legal resident and having a “normal” life seemed within reach. But dream became nightmare when, Jones claims, during a heated argument, her husband “just snapped.” It started when he made a phone call that terrified her.

“He calls his grandmother on the phone and says, ‘I’m just calling to say goodbye to you, because I’m about to go to jail for killing this girl,’” she recalls. According to Jones, her husband then wrestled her to the floor, put her in a chokehold and tried to strangle her. Their 3-month-old baby lay nearby.

Somehow Jones escaped, made it to a neighbor’s apartment and called the police. Her husband (whom she asks not be identified) was subsequently arrested and charged with domestic assault. But his conviction offered her little solace. At 18, Jones suddenly found herself a single mother, unemployed, with no family in Vermont or means to work legally.

Each year, thousands of immigrants who are battered by their spouses or are victims of other violent crimes find themselves in similar predicaments. Forced to choose between fleeing their abusers and clinging to their one means of staying in the country, many choose the latter, often at great personal risk.

But they have another option. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has an office of 60 specially trained immigration officers, known as the Crime Victims Unit, that handles cases just like Jones’. Located in the agency’s Vermont Service Center in St. Albans, the Crime Victims Unit has jurisdiction over all 50 states and is the only unit of its kind in the country.

Immigration officers don’t typically enjoy warm-and-fuzzy reputations. More often, they’re seen as cold and insensitive bureaucrats who have little regard for the welfare of the tired, poor, huddled masses whose fate they control.

But the Vermont Service Center, and the Crime Victims Unit, in particular, has a very different reputation among immigrants and their community advocates. That’s because its officers adjudicate some of the most difficult visa applications USCIS receives: those involving battered spouses, victims and witnesses of serious violent offenses.

Arthur Edersheim is a law professor at Vermont Law School and a staff attorney with the South Royalton Legal Clinic. Edersheim assisted Jones with her visa application and says the Crime Victims Unit is unlike any other immigration office in the Department of Homeland Security.

“Immigration can be the culture of ‘no,’ of always keeping people out and making them prove they really deserve to be here,” he says. But the Crime Victims Unit is “one of those areas of immigration law where people are really, really dedicated to helping people who are in trouble.”

Most Vermonters probably have no idea that one of the largest immigration offices in the United States is right in their backyard. That’s understandable. The Vermont Service Center is located in an unremarkable brick building along the railroad tracks just west of Main Street in downtown St. Albans. From the outside, it could easily be mistaken for a postal facility or a junior high school, except for the armed guard who mans the parking booth.

Inside the lobby sits a chunk of steel girder, mounted on a marble block, that was salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Opposite it, another guard operates the metal detector, signs in visitors, and confiscates all cameras, cellphones and recording devices. Beyond these locked doors, confidentiality is paramount.

Inside is a vast, sprawling cubicle farm where 1100 federal workers and private contractors work. One of only four such centers in the country, the Vermont Service Center handles a variety of immigration applications. They include nonresident employment visas filed by professional athletes who want to play in the NHL, NBA, NFL or MLB. Last year alone, the center handled 1.4 million cases, more than any other immigration office in the country.

Though the Vermont Service Center has been in St. Albans for 30 years, it’s generally flown under the public’s radar and deliberately avoided media attention. It took nearly a year to get permission to go inside for this story.

Why go public now?

“We think we’re a hidden gem, and we don’t necessarily want to be hidden anymore,” says Daniel Renaud, director of the Vermont Service Center. “We think the state of Vermont ought to embrace what this center does, and more importantly, what the people of this community do ... in providing relief to eligible victims.”

Indeed. The low public profile of the Crime Victims Unit in particular is understandable, given the highly sensitive nature of the cases it handles. Many, like Jones’, are VAWA petitions. VAWA, or the Violence Against Women Act, is a federal law passed in 1994 that allows abused spouses of U.S. citizens or legal residents to file residency petitions on their own behalf. Abused spouses can do so even if their marriages ended because of physical or emotional cruelty.

In addition to VAWA cases, the Crime Victims Unit adjudicates all T-visa applications, which are reserved for victims of labor or sex trafficking. Likewise, the unit handles U visas, which are available to victims of, or witnesses to, serious violent offenses such as rape, extortion, kidnapping, torture, murder and genital mutilation. As Renaud explains, U visas can be powerful tools in helping police investigate and prosecute violent criminals.

But U visas aren’t handed out frivolously. About one in four petitions received by the Crime Victims Unit is denied. Thomas Pearl, assistant director of the VSC, who also oversees the unit, says that for a person to get one, a law-enforcement agency must certify that the applicant is willing to cooperate with investigators, sometimes even to testify in court.

Not surprisingly, many immigrants, especially those who are in the country illegally, are reluctant to do so. As Pearl explains, it’s not just the fear of deportation that keeps them from coming forward. Many come from countries where the police force, if not the entire criminal justice system, is corrupt and untrustworthy.

U visas have been around for years, but it wasn’t until January 2009 that USCIS put regulations in place to allow the Crime Victims Unit to start issuing them. By law, only 10,000 U visas can be handed out each year. Fiscal year 2010, which ended on September 30, was the first year in which that cap was reached — a milestone hardly worth celebrating, Renaud notes.

“Unfortunately, we hit the cap because we had 10,000 people who were eligible,” he says. “But if there are 10,000 out there next year who are eligible, we hope they apply.”

That 10,000 figure doesn’t include the applicants’ dependents, such as children, spouses and other family members, who aren’t counted toward the cap. In all, Renaud estimates that the Crime Victims Unit provided safe haven to more than 30,000 people last year.

When asked about the most difficult part of the job, Pearl doesn’t hesitate before answering.

“Not taking it home,” he says. “You see some awful stuff. The adult-on-adult violence is hard enough. But the adult-on-child violence…” His voice trails off as he shakes his head.

That said, Pearl, who’s worked at the center for 20 years, says that his staff has seen very low turnover, despite the often horrific nature of the work. In part, that’s due to the specialized training they’ve received. It’s also because most of the people who work at the center are natives of Vermont or northern New York and have what he calls the “Yankee work ethic.”

“We prefer to do our jobs without the trumpets blowing,” Pearl says, “because we do valuable work, and we take great pride in it.”

It’s worth noting that all petitions processed by the Vermont Service Center are handled via written correspondence; applicants never visit the St. Albans facility, nor do they ever speak to immigration officers by phone or meet them in person. For cases handled by the Crime Victims Unit, communication presents unique challenges, says Pearl, since many victims have either fled their homes or don’t have stable housing.

As a result, one of the first tasks of the unit is to establish a “safe address,” such as a community advocate or pro bono lawyer, where all correspondence is sent. The reason: Officers want to ensure that immigration papers aren’t inadvertently delivered to the batterer or other perpetrators of crimes, which could further endanger the victim.

In cases of VAWA petitions, proving abuse is sometimes very difficult, especially if it’s more emotional than physical in nature. Consider the case of Carla Friedrich, a native of La Savina, Spain. Friedrich met her husband, a U.S. Navy doctor, in 2005. In May 2006, the couple got married just before he was deployed to Iraq.

Friedrich, a well-educated businesswoman, sold her company and moved to Bethesda, Md. But even before her husband returned from the war, Friedrich began noticing changes in his personality. When he finally got back, she says, he seemed like a different man.

“With all the stress, the moving, the new job, the war, I don’t know, it all came together like an atomic bomb,” says Friedrich in a thick Spanish accent. “It was horrible. I had to escape.”

Friedrich insists her husband never laid a finger on her. Her abuse was emotional, she says, but it still took a physical toll. Her weight dropped to 98 pounds, and her doctor told her she was risking her life if she didn’t immediately get out of her situation.

“When I left him, that’s when I started facing my reality,” says Friedrich, who fled to a women’s shelter because she had no other place to go and no family living in the U.S. For a time, she considered returning to Spain, but couldn’t face the shame and humiliation.

With help from a pro bono attorney she met through Catholic Charities in Bethesda, Freidrich filed a VAWA petition. Later, using her psychological exam as well as emails and letters she’d saved from her husband, an immigration officer in St. Albans determined that Friedrich had indeed suffered extreme emotional and psychological abuse. Her petition was granted. Just weeks ago, she became an American citizen.

Today, Friedrich compares her salvation to that of the Chilean miners.

“They did a miracle!” she says tearfully, referring to her attorney and the people at the Crime Victims Unit. “Suddenly, you’re free. You don’t care what’s going to happen next, because whatever happens, it’ll be much better [than] what you have now.”

Friedrich and Jones will never get to offer personal thanks to the immigration officers in Vermont who literally changed their lives, or even to know those officers’ names. Under federal law, the officers’ anonymity is crucial — both for their safety and the clients’. Jones has probably passed her adjudicating officer on the street. Today, she works as a corrections officer and lives in St. Albans, just a few blocks from their office.

For their part, the immigration officers at the Vermont Service Center never get to see the beaming smiles of immigrants such as Jones and Friedrich when they’re sworn in during their naturalization ceremonies. But that’s OK with Pearl and Renaud.

“This kind of work gets under your skin,” Renaud says. “We’re not looking for fame or praise. We’re just here to do a job and do it well.”