Veronica Figueroa-Vález has been executive director of UNIDOS Against
Domestic Violence, which has expended its work into dealing with
UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence
Institutes 24/7 Crisis line
Dealing with Harsh Realities
And having the opportunity to connect with people at 2-3 a.m. and then have that first conversation to be able to get them to an advocate.”
Often times, the women who call on the weekend will wait until Monday morning to come to UNIDOS where they will then call the police.
“We have also seen an increase here of people coming here and calling the police from here rather than from home,” Figueroa-Vález said. “The
abuse probably happened on the weekend and instead of calling the police right away, they wait until we open on Monday and make the call
from here. And then we call the police from here to come over here. To me, it’s more like a safety net that they see in calling the police with an
advocate rather than just calling the police on their own.
“Women who come here to report don’t want law enforcement to know where they live,” Figueroa-Vález continued. “That’s a huge part of not
wanting to apply for a visa. You have to tell them all of your information. If that document doesn’t go through, immigration might come to your
door and take you. That’s their thinking. It doesn’t happen that way. We know it doesn’t happen that way. But it’s a matter of how many contacts
do I get from the police. And if I live in an apartment and I have already called the police two times already, am I going to get evicted because
of too much police contact? And who is going to rent to me again?’ We’re dealing with a couple of those situations right now where people are
getting evicted for calling the police too many times. All of this insensitivity around this issue has to change somehow. We are encountering it
every single day. And then when you think you’ve seen it all, we get something new. It’s a revolving door. It never changes.”
There is a lot of distrust of the criminal justice system, especially if the woman is undocumented. Undocumented victims of domestic abuse
can apply for residency in the United States. But the recent anti-immigrant fervor in the U.S. has made some women hesitant in coming forward.
“We are seeing an increase in people not wanting to apply for the immigration remedy because they fear that if they apply and they are
undocumented, they will be deported,” Figueroa said. “Before we were able to tell them that there wasn’t a guarantee that they would get the
visa. However, there was a 99 percent chance they would get it. Now we can’t say that to them because if you have, let’s say, a ticket for
driving without a license or got arrested for driving without a license and made that police contact, we can’t guarantee that people are going to
get that documentation. We are helping people to understand the risks, but at the same time, the opportunities that they have if they apply for the
visa. I will say that in the seven years that I have been working with UNIDOS, I only had to remove one person from deportation and it took a
big chunk of time. It took five years for this woman to be able to get her visa. Last December, she got her residency and we were all jumping
for joy and crying because she finally got her paperwork after five years. It was uncertain whether or not she was going to stay here. She had
to worry about her kids and the fact that her abuser was still in town and would have access to those kids if she was going to be deported
because the kids were born here. All of those things that we don’t think about and sometimes people whom the police get their husbands or
their significant others deported are also having consequences that we need to look at. Now, we are very cautious.”
Now that Trump will be ending DACA in six months and with Congress having a poor record on enacting immigration reform, undocumented
immigrant women have had to contend with even more issues.
“When you are talking about victims who have lost their husbands or their significant others to deportation and then they have a teenage son
or daughter who can work legally and provide more funding to the house because of the DACA safety net, then people are left to wonder, ‘What
are we going to do now,’” Figueroa-Vález said. “’Should we go back to our countries?’ At the beginning of the year, people went crazy. They
took their money out of the bank and said, ‘We’re leaving. We’re leaving. We’re leaving.’ And we were like, ‘Why don’t we wait? Take it easy.
Let’s see what happens. He’s not the only one making the decisions. Let’s work this process out and don’t go in a crisis mode, making
decisions that you are going to regret later.’ They would lose a lot more and risk their lives to move back to their countries when they know
that someone is waiting for them. It’s a hard voltage place sometimes and we sometimes get put in the position of unfortunately having to be
as clear as we can and tell people the truth in terms of what could happen. We don’t like the people here to say, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be
wonderful. You’re a victim of violence. It’s going to be all beautiful.’ It’s not. Leaving a violent relationship is not beautiful. It takes time. It
takes time to happen and it takes time to get better. We continue to advocate as much as we can for all of these issues on a policy level
through the coalition, through the systems that are in place in our community to really bring the voice forward for people who really need DACA,
who really need to apply for the documentation.”
Another issue that UNIDOS is dealing with is human trafficking. While it is usually considered a developing nation problem, Figueroa-Vález
emphasized that the Madison area is not exempt from the impact of human trafficking.
“Human trafficking in our community is a very sleepy monster,” Figueroa-Vález said. “People don’t seem to understand that this is very real
and it is happening in our community. Human trafficking doesn’t necessarily mean bringing people from overseas and selling them to others for
work or for sex. It’s happening to young girls and boys in the schools. Our kids are getting trapped into these situations. People get harassed
by pimps outside the school, walking to the high school. Our kids are in constant, constant danger from people who really just recruit for
sexual exploitation. We don’t seem to understand that human trafficking does not just entail sex. It entails going to work for someone and not
getting paid and getting exploited, going to work for someone and getting sexually assaulted continuously and not having that money come to
you at all. Someone else is benefitting from your body. They are grooming these kids to believe that, ‘I can give you everything you want. Here’s
a new cell phone. Here are brand new clothes. Let’s go to the mall.’ And then you end up where? Assaulted, raped, used and abused and
exploited. And we don’t seem to understand that kids who are leaving violence at home are at most risk. Kids who are homeless are at super
high risk. The LGBTQ community is at super high risk. We need people to understand the whole concept of human trafficking.”
There is an ugly underside of life in every community that impact people with certain statuses in society more severely. UNIDOS is that lifeline
to a better way of life that women and youth grab hold of if their situations and governmental policies don’t pull them back down into the mire. It
is an issue that we all need to grab hold of.
By Jonathan Gramling
During the last few years, UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence,
under the leadership of Veronica Figueroa-Vález, has been
strengthening its capacity to aid women — and some men — who
are victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence doesn’t limit
itself to the regular work week and so UNIDOS has been working
to develop a 24/7 crisis line for Spanish speakers in Dane County.
“The original plan was to be live until midnight, which we tested
last year through funding from the WI Dept. of Children and
Families,” Figueroa-Vález said. “And they provided the
infrastructure money to do that. Once we knew that it was working
and people were calling, we decided to go after more funding to
make it a 24-hour crisis line beginning in January of this year.
Right now, we’ve had 780 calls this year. Last year, when we
tested the line, we had up to 400 calls. And then of course some of
the people had to wait until the following day because we closed it
at midnight. This year, there has been an increase of victims
coming through the doors for services because of the crisis line.