Activist Discusses the Violence Against Women Act
By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
One of the people at this week’s May Day labor vigil at McAllen’s Archer Park was Sister Moira Kenny. She seldom misses a labor rights rally, a peace march or an anti-capital punishment vigil. She is a member of the Sisters of Mercy and is a respected Valley activist.
Because Sister Moira also has an interesting job, I asked her if she could spend a little time explaining her work to me, and she obliged. She is a legal manager/paralegal for the South Texas Civil Rights Project and has worked there for sixteen years.
Nick Braune: I have seen your office behind the Farmworker Hall on Cesar Chavez Road in Alamo, and there does always seem to be an energetic group there. Could you tell my readers a little about the type of work you do?
Sister Moira Kenny: Yes, and we are an energetic group, and busy. As our name implies, our focus is on civil rights.
The Rio Grande Valley has so many problems that can combine to cause discrimination and civil rights abuses. There’s a long list of such problems: excruciating poverty, abysmal health care, severe lack of public services, inadequate educational opportunities, official oppression, a history of exploitation, unfair terms and conditions of employment, denial of the dignity of the farm worker, and the iron grip of powerlessness affecting the heavily Mexican-American population.
We currently have a broad caseload including some First Amendment freedom of speech issues and some cases on behalf of persons with disabilities not given access to public facilities or access to sign language interpreters by health care providers. We also deal with colonia and property rights issues, employment discrimination matters, the border wall issue, and protection of women from domestic violence.
Nick: In connection with the domestic violence issue, I was checking on the Texas Civil Rights Project website, and I noticed a reference to women sometimes being afraid to come forward about VAWA issues (Violence Against Women Act) because they fear deportation. Is that a frequent problem?
Sr. Moira: There are many undocumented women in the Rio Grande Valley who suffer from physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse by their Legal Permanent Resident or U.S. citizen spouses. And yes, these women suffer doubly — from the abuse itself and the fear of deportation. Undocumented wives who marry legal residents hope that their husbands will petition for them; but when the abuse begins, that hope is shattered. Abusive spouses threaten to call Immigration if the wife would dare report the abuse to the police. (The saying is: “You report me, I deport you.”)
Abused women have a remedy under the VAWA: The Self-Petition Project lets undocumented women petition for themselves and escape their abusive situations by enabling them to obtain working papers and to begin the process of obtaining legal resident status.
1The women are freed from the nightmare of abuse and the threat of deportation, and they are empowered to live free and independent lives. They also can seek work outside their home and become financially capable of caring for themselves and their children without being dependent on their abusive spouses or the social service agencies.
Nick: Is there someone you have interviewed whose story you could share a little with our readers.
Sr. Moira: Elvira is one of our many success stories. Her story of abuse is pretty typical of so many of our clients, in that her husband, Jose (not his real name) would become extremely abusive when drunk. She stayed in the relationship for the sake of the children. Elvira had two children from a previous marriage, and Jose was quite abusive to them also. Often he threatened to kill Elvira. Once out of this relationship through our VAWA program, Elvira prospered, developing her own catering business. She also is a teacher’s aide and has become a Permanent Resident.
Another client, Margarita, is our best example of the change that can take place in these women. When we first met her, Margarita could not look at us; her eyes and head were always downcast. But over the next three years she started to blossom. For some unknown reason, Immigration took longer with her case than any other. (We think they lost her file!) But over that time, she never lost hope. Her smile has become the most rewarding thanks we could ever get.
Like Margarita, many of our clients who have been approved through the VAWA program have jobs with local school districts, as home health care providers, or food service providers.
Nick: Sister Moira, thank you for this interview and for your work. I can see that your office is bringing legal help and hope to many people.