I meet Nadzeya at an upscale café, somewhere in Manhattan. It’s the only place where she would meet me: somewhere crowded, so she could remain anonymous. Nadzeya, by the way, is not her real name.
Let’s get something out of the way. When people think of undocumented immigration in America, many don’t necessarily think of Nadzeya — a tall, pale platinum blonde woman from eastern Europe.
In an interview, she stirs her tea and talks about life back home, asking not to name the country where she’s from. “I like it here,” she says. “Back home I had a dream, to become a lawyer, but the life is so corrupted. If you don’t know anyone, or you are not from the capital, you cannot really pursue your dream. And here, I saw that if you work really hard, if you have a goal, you will succeed.”
Nadzeya came to the US on a student visa. She overstayed, and became undocumented.
There’s a sweet apprehensiveness about her. She has this nervous tick, where she blinks really hard. It comes on more frequently when she discusses her ex-boyfriend, a US citizen. She had a baby with him. At first, things were OK. But in time, he became abusive.
"I was afraid to go to police. Because he told me, ‘If you go to the police, you are going to end up losing your child, and they will deport you. So ... police was totally not an option for me," she says.
If you talk to the police, you’ll get deported. You will never see your child again. Those are pretty common lines that immigrants — especially women — hear from abusers.
Carmen Maria Rey works with the nonprofit Sanctuary For Families, in New York. She oversees thousands of cases like Nadzeya’s. "The classic story for us is generally a woman who has survived domestic violence for decades," Rey says, "and finally there is an incident of such extreme violence she has to call the police, for her own safety."
Rey helps women like Nadzeya get something called a U visa. It’s a special visa for immigrant victims of crimes, who are willing to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute perpetrators. There’s a cap of 10,000 U visas issued per year. The visas were created in 2000 when Congress passed new legislation to protect women — women like Nadzeya, who would otherwise be too scared to come forward.
“If police would come to the house, I would be the one who would be ... I would be hiding from the police. I was afraid,” Nadzeya says.
She never went to the police. Instead, after a particularly bad incident, she says, "I took my child, I put him in the stroller, I took my backpack, my laptop. I left. I had nothing. It was only me and the baby."
She ran out of the house and made it to a shelter, where she was able to link up with Sanctuary for Families, the organization where Rey works.
In the next year, she discovered her partner had other children — and other pending cases for domestic abuse, with other women.
She remembers the day she was granted a U visa. "I started screaming like crazy. I was crying. I … I couldn’t believe it. The ideas started changing: What can I do right now? How can my life change right now? What is the next step for me? I think beginning then — where I was before, and where I am right now, it’s two different lives, it’s two different people."
The visas are valid for four years but can be extended "in certain, limited circumstances," according to the government's immigration services site.
Nadzeya was able to get a legal job, which led to renting an apartment, and sending her child to a good school.
But since she got her U visa, the nation's mood toward immigrants has changed dramatically.
Since being elected, President Donald Trump has made it the cornerstone of his administration to crack down on undocumented immigration. Although the White House has so far not commented on the U visa program, Rey says her clients are increasingly scared to come forward and report crimes. "People are very concerned in the community that, if they are the victims of a crime, that reporting it is going to cause retaliation against them, by the perpetrator. But people are also very concerned, especially with crimes that result in a family environment, that by calling authorities on the person hurting them, they are potentially causing a deportation."
Think about that: You call the police on your husband, he gets deported. Maybe you do too. Rey says, it’s a tough call.
"What do we tell clients? I mean I think we ... we do our job, which is offer legal counseling," she says. "We continue to tell clients, you have the right to call police. You have the right to report crime. You have the right to use the courts. Individuals who work for the city of New York will not be forwarding your information to law enforcement. That said, when you do this, these are the things that you should take into consideration."
Back at that swanky café in Manhattan, Nadzeya says she is watching this unfold. The days of her running away when she saw the police are long gone, but she talks about it as if it were yesterday.
She thinks of the women who are in the situation she used to be in. "I’m afraid. I’m afraid," she repeats. "I’m afraid for the women who are in the same situation where I was three or four years ago. Even for me, back then, I was afraid to come out. I think right now, it’s much worse."
Nadzeya says, if it had happened to her in this current political climate, she would never have asked for help.