The struggle of undocumented single, Latina mothers in the United States
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“Look at my hands,” that’s what Elizabeth, a pseudonym, kept saying throughout our conversation. As she likes to say, she has already lived many lives in just one, and her hands’ scars tell her stories.
As an immigrant from Ecuador, she came to the United States more than 20 years ago looking for better life conditions — and this wasn’t even Elizabeth’s first time reinventing herself.
She left her parents' house in the countryside of Ecuador when she was only 12 years old; pursuing a new life in the big city, she was alone. Elizabeth was a child having to face real challenges such as famine, homelessness and prejudice with no support.
After a few years and with two children and a husband, she decided to once again seek new opportunities. The whole family went to Mexico and spent a year there, where Elizabeth worked nonstop to get the money to cross the border.
In 2001, the family made it to Ohio, but there was no American dream waiting for Elizabeth there either.
The father of her now four children became her worst nightmare. Not only beating her every single day and abusing her emotionally, physically and psychologically, he would also harm and neglect the children. Hesitant to go to the police as she was afraid to be deported and separated from her children, she stayed with him until she couldn’t anymore.
“I suffered everything a woman could possibly suffer,” she said to Al Día News. “I was afraid, alone and didn't even speak English.”
Philadelphia was the city that 15 years ago she was able to escape to and find resources for help. As a undocumented single mother in a completely new environment, Elizabeth had to go against all the odds to be able to raise her children. In the city of brotherly love, she was contradictorily supported by the Sisters of Saint Joseph — who have helped her with immigration and personal issues.
Since she escaped, neither she or her children have seen or heard from her husband again.
Sisters of Saint Joseph Welcome Center
There is no doubt that facing all the problems on your own is more difficult than with a support system. Although Elizabeth didn’t have any family in the U.S., she found the help she needed at the Sisters of Saint Joseph Welcome Center — which also offers support for many other immigrants in the Philadelphia and New Jersey areas.
Created 20 years ago, the welcome center emerged in the Kensington neighborhood to meet the needs of the growing immigrant community in the area. The Sisters of Saint Joseph are traditionally educators who, with strength and commitment, transformed a former funeral home and doctor’s offices into a homey place people can come for help.
Considering Philadelphia's long history of being a city of immigrants, the welcome center’s mission is to offer opportunities to immigrants and others to improve the quality of their lives through access to education, support services, and programs leading to self-sufficiency. The welcome center is totally funded through the Sisters of Saint Joseph, but they also receive grants and donations.
In the area of education, they offer English classes and citizenship preparation — and many of the classes are taught by volunteers. Yoga, crochet and art workshops are also offered so women can come together. It is a place for hospitality and community, said a staff member.
Working as a resource center and committed to supporting the community, whenever they are capable of helping their regulars, they do so — with food, rent, utilities and more. There is also someone in the staff who is certified through the Department of Justice that helps with immigration issues. Even if they can't help someone at the welcome center, the staff always makes sure to offer resources to other organizations in the city.
For their work with women, they have partnered with other organizations in the city to promote conversations about abuse, as many women don’t even realize they are in abusive relationships. Because it is a difficult topic that people don’t often talk about, having those information sessions help to bring awareness.
Playing a special role in Elizabeth and her family’s lives, the sisters of Saint Joseph helped her go through some hard times when her youngest daughter Sylvia, a pseudonym — who struggles with severe depression and suicide attempts — had to be hospitalized in a mental institution.
Besides all the past trauma and having to work two jobs to provide for her family, one of Elizabeth’s main concerns is that she has no documentation in the U.S. She is constantly afraid the police are going to knock at her door and deport her. Elizabeth worries about how her children are going to react with separation — especially her daughter Sylvia. Not only Elizabeth, but her two older children who were born in Ecuador have no documents, but have been living in the U.S. for basically their entire lives.
Elizabeth isn’t an isolated case of an Ecuadorian trying to find better conditions in the U.S. According to Pew Research Center, Ecuadorians were the 10th-largest population of Hispanic origin living in the U.S., in 2017; accounting for 1% of the U.S. Hispanic population. Since 2000, the Ecuadorian-origin population has increased 174% in the country.
Since she left Ecuador, Elizabeth hasn’t seen her parents again. In the meantime, her father died but her mom still lives in the house Elizabeth left when she was only 12. Her dream is to be able to hug her mother once again, but for this to happen she needs to become legal in the U.S. first.
Al Día News talked with Seth Lupton, an immigration attorney at Lupton Law LLC, who explained what are some of the legal alternatives available for Elizabeth and all other undocumented single mothers and their children.
Located in the Pennsylvania area, Lupton has experience dealing with single immigrant mothers. He said that the standard lawyer response to immigration cases is: it depends. It depends how each person entered the U.S., how many years they have been living in the country, if they have criminal records and more; however, a few options largely apply in most single mother cases. See below some situations and its processes that may allow you to be eligible for a visa:
- If you can prove your child would suffer extreme hardship if you get deported. It doesn’t matter if the child was or not born in the U.S., but the mother needs to be living here for at least 10 years. For this process, the mother needs to go in front of a judge, through the court system first, and prove the child’s circumstances. Several medical conditions are much easier to prove, for example, according to Lupton. If the mother wins the case, she gets a work permit and is technically allowed to stay in the U.S. lawfully, while the visa is processed. Due to a gap in the amount of those visas that can be given out per year, the whole process can take years.
- If your child was born in the U.S. and is over 21. If the mother entered the country with a visa and ended up over staying, but had a child who is now over 21; this child can directly apply for the mother.
- If you are under 18 in Pennsylvania and you are here with a single parent. Besides Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), children can apply for a special immigration juvenile status. Basically, it needs to be proved that a child is abandoned, abused or neglected by their other parent. Just one of these three is enough and abandonment can also mean that one of the parents doesn’t have the economic capacity to take care of that child, Lupton said. Besides filing paperwork, the process involves going to family court, instead of immigration court. Once the person is approved for the status, they are on their way to get a green card. It is important to highlight that custody changes between states. In New Jersey, for example, people can be under 21.
- If you were either emotionally, physically, or psychologically abused by your U.S. citizen partner. Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), women who their partners showed a pattern practice of abuse over time are eligible for immigration relief in the U.S. — even if they came unlawfully or have a criminal record. Once they have had that for a while, they are eligible for residency and later citizenship.
- If you were a victim of a domestic violence crime. It doesn't matter if the couple is technically married or not, women (and, if they have, their children) are eligible for a U visa — a specific type of visa for people who were victims of crimes. Although just certain crimes qualify, domestic violence is for sure one of them. It doesn't matter who committed it (boyfriend, husband, etc) nor where the person is from (a citizen or not); what matters is that women report to the police and be cooperative. The process can take up to eight years, but while it happens, applicants are allowed to stay in the U.S. Once the visa is approved, people have it for four years; and after three years, they can apply for a green card. Lupton highlights that if a person has a criminal record or multiple entries to the U.S., it doesn't matter in order to qualify for an U visa. It is important to also mention that if the opposite happens, and the children are the ones who suffered the abuse, the parent is also eligible for the visa.
Lupton explained that many domestic violence crimes aren’t reported by Latina immigrants because of cultural concepts. Often, women coming from countries, especially from Central America, don’t understand the seriousness of the situations they face with their abusive partners. Once they get to the U.S., they are able to find people and resources that help them understand that how they have been living isn’t right. On top of that, women are hesitant to report because the abusers use the women's fear of being deported to prevent them from going to the police.
At Lupton Law LLC, consultations aren’t charged, as Lupton explains attorneys have to do a better job in spreading the word about what options are available to immigrants, specially to single mothers. His office also does free informational sessions in churches and community groups, in order to help immigrants be aware of resources they can reach out to.
“Please do not think that you do not have access to services because you are not a citizen,” Lupton said. “You might not have the same access that a citizen has, but you do have resources.”
Just like Elizabeth, many single mothers have been struggling to provide for their families on their own. According to a data provided by National KIDS ACCOUNT, 34% of children were in single-parent families, in 2019. Among the Latino community, this number rose to 42%.
Adding to the challenges, Latina immigrants in the labor force earn less than any other demographic group.
Even after many lives, Elizabeth still struggles to provide for her family. She works nonstop to try to compensate for being a single parent provider, but new difficulties inside her house have added to the pile. Because her youngest daughter Sylvia was suffering bullying in public school, Elizabeth had to transfer her to a safer private school — which was only possible due to the help of scholarships.
The problem is she still needs money to pay for the rest of tuition, and changing schools again doesn’t seem like a good alternative for Sylvia. Although adapted to the new environment, Elizabeth is afraid how a drastic change may affect Sylvia due to her mental problems. She still has one year left in middle school and the entire high school to go through, so Elizabeth needs all the help possible.
She is now desperately trying to find alternatives for her daughter to keep studying — something she loves to do. Elizabeth says Sylvia’s dream is to one day be successful and able to buy her mother a house.
“What has been keeping me going are my children,” said Elizabeth.
Since she left her home when she was 12, Elizabeth has been trying to have a better life. Many years and a few children later, her dream now is for them to have access to education and a safe life in the United States, without constant fear. If you want to help Elizabeth please reach out to [email protected].
If you are experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233. Women Against Abuse and Office of Domestic Violence Strategies are additional resources in Philadelphia.