Mona Patel-Sikora has what must be one of the most emotionally difficult jobs in Los Angeles. A staff attorney with the immigration unit of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, she provides representation to battered immigrant women and children who come to the United States looking for a better life.
After she graduated from the University of Southern California Law School in 1990, Patel-Sikora was on her way to a career in a big law firm. She joined Bryan Cave and worked there five years but found that while she enjoyed doing civil litigation, her heart was with immigrant women.
Patel-Sikora received a master’s in social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, India, in 1985 with a specialization in family and child welfare. Working with troubled families, Patel-Sikora recognized that the problems of many of her clients could not be alleviated with social services alone. They needed legal assistance as well. She entered the Government College of Law at the University of Bombay, earning a bachelor’s of general law in 1987.
“I came to this country to study the U.S. legal system,” she says. “I planned to return to India after I got my degree, but in my last year of law school I met my husband, a U.S. citizen. I had wanted to use my background in social work and law to help women in India. It didn’t take me long to realize that many women in this country faced serious problems too.”
After leaving Bryan Cave, she volunteered at the Immigrant Rights Project before being hired as one of its staff attorneys in 1998. In March 2003, she joined the staff of the Legal Aid Foundation. Patel-Sikora was recently named one of California’s top 20 lawyers under 40 by California Law Business.
“My clients come from all over the world,” she says, “but what they all have in common is an undocumented status that keeps them trapped, isolated and fearful of their abusers, the police and immigration.” Undocumented women legally married to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents can apply for legal residency. All their husbands have to do is file a petition on their behalf. This power to make or break their wives’ American residency can be a tool in the hands of unscrupulous husbands wanting control over their wives. Too often, says Patel-Sikora, abusive husbands use that power to punish their wives and children. Some initiate the petition process but refuse to complete it; others refuse to file at all.
In the past, battered immigrant wives had few options. If they threatened to call the police, their abusers could retaliate by reporting them to immigration. Faced with the threat of deportation and separation from children born in this country or the risk of staying with violent men on whom they were financially dependent, most women stayed put.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the milestone legislation passed by Congress in 1994, released women and unmarried children under the age of 21 from the stranglehold of abusive husbands and fathers. For the first time, wives and children of citizens and legal residents could self-petition for legal residency without the knowledge or assistance of the spouse or parent. That’s where Patel-Sikora comes in. She walks the women and children through the entire legal process, from self-petition to receiving a green card.
“Going through the process is so hard for women who don’t speak English or have much education,” says Patel-Sikora. “I try to make it as easy as possible for them, but I also want them to understand what’s happening, even if I have to repeat the same point again and again. Lawyers often don’t take time to explain the legal system to immigrant clients.”
Explaining the law is only part of Patel-Sikora’s job. Just as important is offering her clients emotional and moral support. Many come from cultures that condone wife-beating and that stigmatize women who leave their husbands. On average, Patel-Sikora says, a battered wife goes back to her violent husband six or seven times before finally leaving him.
“My clients are traumatized by violence and the breakup of the family, and they blame themselves for everything that’s gone wrong. I spend a lot of time talking to them about what having legal status will mean for them and their children. They have been through so much suffering. I want them to know that with help, they can change their lives.”
Obtaining a green card can take anywhere between one and eight years, depending on the petitioner’s country of origin and the husband’s or father’s immigration status. Those from countries such as Mexico, India and China have the longest wait. Once their self-petitions are approved, however, they receive employment authorization cards that permit them to work legally in the States.
No one knows how many undocumented women are victims of domestic violence. Cultural and legal barriers keep many from coming forward. Most don’t know that the police and other service agencies will help them regardless of immigration status. Often it is only when the lives of their children are endangered that some women dare to seek outside help.
The women and children who come to the Legal Aid Foundation are typically referred by the police, battered women’s shelters, hospitals or the domestic violence hotline. Carmen, a client of Patel-Sikora, was referred through the district attorney’s victims programs. Her story follows a familiar pattern of abuse of undocumented women. (Names and details have been changed to protect the client’s privacy.)
In 1994, Carmen slipped across the Mexican border into California, where she quickly found work as a waitress. Working for less than minimum wage and without health insurance, she managed to support herself and, later, a daughter, Maria, born in California. Carmen’s circumstances improved dramatically in 2001 when she met and married Manuel, a U.S. citizen.
“He was so polite and took such good care of me and my daughter,” says Carmen. “He was always hugging us and giving us lots of love. We were so happy together for the first six months. Then he changed.”
Without warning, Manuel turned secretive and cold, even refusing to tell Carmen where he worked. Increasingly silent and angry, he exploded with jealousy, accusing Carmen of seeing other men on the sly. The first time he hit her, she was shocked.
“I wanted to go to a friend’s birthday party. He told me I was dressed too sexy, and he punched me in the face. I was scared and started to cry. He told me he could kill me, and he beat his fists through the bedroom wall to prove it. “
Manuel later apologized and even bought pictures to hang over the holes in the wall, but the peace was short-lived. A few weeks later when Carmen resisted his sexual advances, he went into a rage. Grabbing a knife, he beat and cut Carmen before attacking Maria. Bloodied and bruised, Carmen managed to crawl to the front door and scream to her neighbor to call the police.
“I didn’t press charges against him,” says Carmen, “because I still loved him and didn’t want to get him in trouble. He spent three days in jail and then disappeared. I haven’t seen him since.”
Patel-Sikora helped Carmen file a VAWA self-petition. Perhaps because of the strength of the declaration she submitted, Carmen’s petition was approved in a record eight months. Within days of getting her employment authorization card, Carmen applied for and was accepted for a job with a major supermarket chain in her neighborhood. For the first time since entering the country, she could earn a fair wage and receive benefits.
Seeing women like Carmen take charge of their lives compensates for all the sadness and suffering Patel-Sikora encounters in her work. “I see so many broken women and children abused by men they loved and trusted. It’s a triumph of the human spirit that they find the strength to move on.”
Married and the mother of two children, Patel-Sikora unwinds from work by indulging in two of her favorite pastimes: cooking and reading. Although she tries to keep firm boundaries between home and work, she has a hard time leaving behind the cases of abused children.
Seeing so many families destroyed by domestic violence has inevitably affected her thinking about her own family. “I’m lucky to have a fabulous husband and two great kids,” she says. “But my work makes me all the more aware of my own responsibility to raise a gentle son and an assertive daughter.”
In recognition of her work with battered and trafficked immigrant women, Patel-Sikora received the 2004 Public Service Award from the South Asian Bar Association of Southern California’s Public Interest Foundation.