Woman feared permanent separation from children

Written by Andrea Simnick Xu and Glenn Oviatt

The United States offers many services and safeguards for victims of domestic violence. Undocumented immigrants who suffer at the hands of an abuser are the group least aware of their right to ask for protection and most afraid to speak up. While the majority of clients served by World Relief Immigrant Legal Services are legal residents of the United States, this story highlights a small but vulnerable category of clients who receive legal advocacy. 

The names of some individuals have been changed to protect their identity.


Julia Garcia is a mother of two young daughters and the wife of an abusive husband. She is also an undocumented immigrant who married an American citizen and possessed little power to protect her children.

When Garcia came to World Relief DuPage in January 2010, she feared her legal status would deny her the right to ask for the safety of her children and herself. However, under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), an undocumented immigrant who suffers abuse from an American spouse can apply for a Green Card.

Matt Soerens, U.S. Church Training Specialist for World Relief, said the law provides protection for people who are in vulnerable situations similar to Garcia but many are unaware of these provisions.

One of “our jobs [at World Relief Immigrant Legal Services] is simply to help the law work as it’s supposed to: to protect people who are victims of abuse and crime,” Soerens said.

With a staff accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals, World Relief DuPage’s Immigrant Legal Services provides low-cost assistance to immigrants and refugees from around the world, seeking to keep clients well-informed of their rights, responsibilities and opportunities under the current laws.

Before Garcia approached World Relief, she pursued a visa through her husband. Instructed to return to Mexico to apply for a visa, Garcia followed bad advice from a Notario—a person who unlawfully gives immigrant legal instruction. Although some Notarios are well-meaning, many make a living off of the ignorance and fear of undocumented immigrants.

Based upon the Notario’s advice, Garcia believed she would only have to wait in Mexico for three years before returning to the U.S. if her visa request was rejected. After waiting almost a year to find out that she had been denied, Garcia learned that she would be separated from her children for at least another 10 years before she could legally reenter the United States, and that was only if her second application for a visa was accepted.

Garcia’s fear for the well-being of her children grew after an emotional phone call from her eldest daughter who said she was hungry and afraid of angering her drunken father by asking for food. Garcia decided she could no longer be separated from her daughters and attempted to cross the US-Mexico border. After being caught and sent back, she made a second – and more desperate – attempt, successfully returning to Wheaton to care for her children.

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Upon hearing her story, World Relief Immigrant Legal Services told Garcia she had a strong VAWA petition and set to work obtaining the necessary paperwork. When Garcia was sent to the Glen Ellyn police department for proof that she’d never been arrested, the police detained her and transferred her to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Unbeknownst to her, Garcia had an outstanding warrant for her arrest issued in 2002. While pregnant with her first child, Garcia was attacked by some of her husband’s family members. After the police arrived, Garcia explained the situation and was let go. Because her husband moved her to a new location, Garcia never received the summons to appear in court and was charged with battery.

Garcia’s World Relief Immigration Counselor Elise Bryson hurriedly began building a case to delay her possible deportation. Unsure if Garcia would be on the next day’s deportation plane, Bryson stayed at the World Relief DuPage office past midnight, calling partner attorneys at DePaul University for advice and preparing Garcia’s case.

Garcia was soon transferred to the Broadview Immigrant Detention Center and appeared to be on the fast track toward deportation. No one was informed of her whereabouts.

Garcia’s eldest daughter believed she would never see her mother again, and grew to fear the police.

“It was a very panicked situation,” Bryson said. “Not only do you have someone being deported, but she also has two U.S. citizen daughters of very young ages who would have been in the custody of the abuser. Although he had never directly hurt the kids, his alcoholism had resulted indirectly in their endangerment before.”

The following morning, Sarah Diaz, a partner attorney from DePaul University College of Law, came to World Relief DuPage to help Bryson discover where Garcia was and how to petition for her release. Coincidentally, Diaz knew the supervising attorney at the Broadview Immigrant Detention Center from their days at the National Immigration Justice Center in Chicago. Through the personal connection Diaz was able to quickly get ahold of the attorney and informed him that Garcia was a VAWA client with two young children. An hour later, World Relief DuPage received a call from Garcia announcing her release.

When Garcia’s American neighbor and friend Cathy Anderson heard about the news, she responded with tears of joy. Throughout the night, Garcia’s family and neighbors prayed for her release.

“That was a miracle,” Anderson said. “It was really praying for hope against hope; it was like asking for the impossible.”

Later that day, Garcia came home to a joyful community of friends and neighbors.

“It was really emotional,” Anderson recalled. “When I saw Julia, we were hugging and crying.  And she was so grateful for everything everyone had done.  I think it was overwhelming for her to have people fighting for her, to have people getting involved and doing anything and everything to fight for her to be with her family… for her dignity to be valued and cared for.” 

Since her return, Garcia completed the VAWA petition through World Relief and was approved within the year. Now Garcia has work authorization, a Social Security card and a driver’s license. However, Garcia is still waiting for the government to grant her a green card.

Garcia’s eldest daughter, who was traumatized by the separation from her mother and continual threat of losing her permanently, is now regaining her trust in the police and the ability to engage in everyday activities, like attending school.

While Garcia and her husband work through the process of reconciliation, she now has freedom she didn’t have before – she can support her children independent from an abusive relationship and can seek the best life for her daughters without the fear of being separated again.


To learn more about the work of World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services and how you can be involved, please click here