Ana Bolanos felt trapped in a violent, loveless marriage. Her husband threatened to turn her in to immigration officials if she sought a divorce.
A newspaper ad led her to a New Haven-based legal aid lawyer. And her life changed.
The lawyer, Sheila Hayre, specializes in domestic violence cases. Lately, that has come to mean specializing as well in immigration cases.
Bolanos (pictured), who now lives in Derby, came to the U.S. from Guatemala without documents in 1988. She raised two children while their father, whom she married in 1998, carried on relationships with other women, she said. He had also immigrated from Guatemala, but in 2006 was able to get legal working papers.
The couple went first to California, then moved to Connecticut in 1999 to be near some of her husband’s relatives. “I found a job in the same laundromat where I still work” in Ansonia, Bolanos said. His relatives urged her to stay with her husband despite his extended trip to Guatemala to be with another lover and despite his cashing in his hefty 401K and not spending a dime of it on his family, she charged.
“Estupida,” she repeated passionately in Spanish throughout an interview. She called herself stupid for not leaving her husband, but she was stopped in her tracks by fear of being deported if he turned her in.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I went to the street and into a store to get a coffee and saw a newspaper in Spanish. I saw a photo of a woman and a phone number for legal aid,” promising help to women in just her circumstances. She called the number for the organization’s Ansonia office. “They sent me to Sheila—Oh!” she exclaimed with delight.
That’s Hayre, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance. After meeting her attorney, she said, “Everything started to go up, and I found my salvation.”
Interviewed in her tiny office on State Street in downtown New Haven, Hayre, who specializes in domestic violence cases, said of the 100 cases on her desk now, about three-quarters are those of immigrant women.
Under the federal Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, she helps these women get legal status. Then they’re free to pursue divorce and build their lives here without worrying about deportation.
Hayre (pictured) said a subgroup of these women are so-called mail order brides, brought into the country legally by men who are American citizens. Once these women arrive in the state, many of their husbands become very demanding.
“They expect them to do labor in the house; they have intense sexual demands on these women. There’s often a significant age difference. In some cases it can lead to even trafficking, where they’re expected to work in an industry and are not paid for their work.”
She added that many of these women are completely isolated. They don’t seek out help so they are at the mercy of the men who brought them here. “These men can legitimately say to these women, ‘If you don’t do X, Y or Z, I’m sending you home, and I know you have nothing there.’”
But if they do seek help, either by cooperating with the police investigation of their abuse case and getting a U visa, or by seeking protection under the Violence Against Women Act, they may escape their virtual imprisonment. Hayre said she thinks the number of immigrant women seeking help has increased as her agency and others have reached out to places these women spend time, like Junta for Progressive Action and St. Rose of Lima Church, both in Fair Haven.
Bolanos outlined her progress since meeting Hayre. “Sheila got me permission to work legally, so I can’t be kicked out of the country. She arranged alimony.” She helped Bolanos file for divorce, which was finalized in December.
And she’s on the road to American citizenship. “Everything I have gotten from this country, what else could I ask for? Nothing!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. “For me, the country is fantastico.”
And Hayre? “She is the angel of my life. I will never get tired of thanking her.”