Just over three years ago Maria Dorantes disappeared.
Better known to her friends and family as Chayo, she last contacted her family from the Sonoran border town of Altar on February 25, 2011, and told them she’d soon be trying to cross the border and return to their Los Angeles area home.
On a chilly February evening about three weeks ago, Maria’s coworker-turned-friend-turned-sister Robin and Maria’s three sons, now 20, 16 and 13 gathered on Seal Beach. With a stiff breeze coming in off the sea, they struggled to hold lighters steady below inflatable paper lanterns.
Flames raced across the strings from the fuel pack and up the sides of the first lantern, the second drooped sideways into its own heat and both went up in flames. The boys quickly them covered with sand. But held by two people, steadied from the bottom and the sides, the next one began to slowly inflate – then a second and a third.
And gradually, as her family looked upwards after them, above the sand and water the night sky filled with lanterns for Maria.
In the fall of 2010, I did a story that grew out of the same reporting behind this blog (Unidentified Dead Common on the Border) for Cronkite News called Trapped in violence: Undocumented abuse victims face hurdles. The story explored how provisions in The Violence Against Women Act are designed to help undocumented women who are experiencing domestic violence, women who may be less likely to report or leave situations that are dangerous for themselves and their families because they are afraid of deportation and family seperation (especially if their abuser has legal status in the U.S.). Extra material from the story became a supplementary page, Undocumented Abuse.
Last summer I had the opportunity to propose a story for a Journalism Journalism Center for Children and Families project called Lifelines: Stories from the Human Safety Net.
While now closed, Journalism Journalism Center for Children and Families archives are still active with great reporting resources “for news and inspiration about children, youth and families” including active feeds and newsletters from related sites and sources.
For the Lifelines project, I proposed returning to my 2010 report to include updates on VAWA (which went through a difficult renewal battle), deeper interviews with CPLC (Chicanos Por La Causa) shelter staff and more women’s stories.
The response was overwhelming: hundreds of photos and over 37 hours of on the record interviews, many on video, including 12 shelter staff members, 10 women staying at the shelter, 1 teenager, 1 woman who became a staff member after seeking shelter, four additional social workers and academics and one of the original four women I profiled in 2010. All of these sources were incredibly generous with their time, knowledge and personal stories. Along with the interviews they let me shadow them through case meetings, language and financial literacy classes, staff lunches, organized shelter activities, playground time with their children and several invited me into their homes.
The resulting JCCF story, Violencia Domestica / Domestic Violence, is both an important and fragementary part of these larger stories they shared, stories which I hope to keep following and developing, especially here, over the upcoming year.
• Violencia Domestica | Domestic Violence (Lifelines: Stories from the Human Safety Net on 1 November 2014) – a bilingual shelter helps immigrant women find freedom from fear.
It may be noticeable that things have slowed down a bit here this summer… The good news: I’ve been hired for a project with JCCF. The bad news: I have to put this blog on an indefinite hiatus while I work on it, as I just can’t keep both going at the same time.
When I get back, one thing I’ll be doing here is exploring ways in which the material for the two projects, immigration and domestic violence, overlap. In the meantime this recent article, Top Immigration Court Hands Huge Win to Battered Women Seeking Asylum, on a recent Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision regarding asylum is one example.
While I’m gone, everything on the blog will stay up as is. Comments can still be submitted. Resource links and other suggestions are very welcome and will start being added again when I return. Thank you for your patience!
Recently, the blog received a cheery request to post a link to a site that promised help with immigration paperwork. The site looks official and trustworthy, both in the name of the site. It even comes up first in a google search on immigration forms.
The site does disclose that the forms can be downloaded for free from the government and that the government may charge additional fees. So what does this site offer? They say that they will make your application easy and error free.
Sounds good? Sure – which is why it’s important to double check if the site is legitimate. Unfortunately in this case, there’s many complaints that describe the site as a rip-off and a scam at the site’s Consumer Affairs page. Entry after entry notes that they have paid fees for what would be free directly from the government and gotten little to nothing in return. Clients report that the company is unresponsive to complaints and unwilling to give refunds.
Here are a few of the comments:
“I thought I was on the legit site for the Immigration Dept. Their company is the first one that comes up when you search for Immigration. Their site looks exactly like the legit Immigration site. When I paid, I thought these were the fees for getting my citizenship. They charge you for using a form on their site that you can get for free from the legit Immigration Department. They charged me $189.00 for nothing.”
Signed up for a green card for my wife and self. They charged us 2 x $159.00 because of separate filing. Did not know that these same forms are available on the Govt. website without having to pay the Immigrationdirect.com website. Try to call and complain without getting any credit for these credit card fees. Besides, paying 2 x $450.00 each to the official U.S. government immigration service. We did not know that we were had until our interview last week by the US Immigration Service when we ask why we also had to pay www.immigrationdirect.com. They advised us to file with the state of Illinois legal aid to recover the excess fees paid. Fraudulent use of the false U.S. website is falsely having been charged.
How is this possible? This looks just like the real thing… This must be against the law or something.. This people have my SSN, my ALIEN # and almost my credit card #. I said almost cuz I wasn’t ready to file it yet… I filled up the app. Was asked to pay $149 for my green card. I went to put my money into my bank then I got a phone call from Immigrationdirect… I didn’t answer but I got voice mail :-/ very strange: Like since when immigration will call you back ha? Well this voice on my voice machine offered 25% off the original $149 fee for my green card… Now this is when I stop doing anything and start to put things together… Don’t fall for it, it’s not real website. Go directly to immigration in your town but just to be clear, something has to be done with this website. This is not good!!!!
When a site seems official and offers a much desired short cut, it can be all too tempting to skip the due diligence we’re likely to do when we ask friends about a new brand or read reviews about online merchants. Yet when the stakes are high this double checking is even more important. That’s when you have the least to lose to people who are trying to take advantage of you for their own profit.
Though this particular site does include a fine print disclosure that the forms are available for free elsewhere, the small print is for their protection – protection from lawsuits and refunds – and not for yours.
And when it comes to official U.S. government forms, look for “.gov” websites – they’re not always easy to navigate and there may be fees when you file – but the forms themselves are nearly always available for free.
Also, a huge thanks to Ellen Kroeker for the initial background on this site and then working all the way through this post with me!
Community participation. It’s become such a catch phrase that making it solidify when you stop to really look at it can be tricky, like trying to see synergy or social networking. Yet it was an excitingly tangible part of the event I covered Saturday, the official launch of the Colibri Center for Human Rights which included the Tucson premiere of Who is Dayani Cristal?
More than 400 people showed up – more than double the number that attended the award winning documentary’s New York premiere. But a crowd alone doesn’t mean community.
Here’s the thing: many of the 400 + people who were there last night are active in the community about these issues; many were featured in the film or interviewed as part of the background research. Since many of the people at the event have been working together, or at least known each other, for years, the evening was full of familiar faces greeting familiar faces.
For more about the film, check out the trailer below and for more about Colibri’s official launch event, check out my coverage for Tucson Sentinel article here:
• Colibri Center launch puts human faces to border issues – Tucson Sentinel on 6 May 2014
“It’s gonna be a tough week or two,” Robin said. “I just can’t believe it’s been two years.”
Two years ago – that’s how long Robin has been trying to find out what happened to her coworker-turned-friend-turned-sister.
Maria Dorantes, better known to her friends and family as Chayo, was last heard from on February 25, 2011. Family had made arrangements with a smuggler to help her cross the U.S.-Mexico border in the next few days. From the border town of Altar her route likely lay west through the Sonoran countryside and then, after crossing the border onto the sovereign land of the Tohono O’odham, north up the Baboquivari Valley. Hopefully a few days of walking would end by waiting at Hwy 68 for a vehicle that could take her to Phoenix in a matter of hours.
Chayo’s ultimate destination was Los Angeles – she was devoted to her three teenage sons and worried about how they were doing in her absence, said Robin*.
“I just know in my heart that Chayo would do anything to be with her boys,” Robin said.
When they first met Robin and Chayo discovered they had much in common including losing parents at an early age. Over years of friendship the two women went from being friendly at work to practically sisters and Robin was asked to be the godmother of one of Dorantes’ three California born sons.
The one thing Chayo had hidden from Robin was a secret that daily threatened the life she was building with her family in Los Angeles: Chayo herself was living in the United States illegally because she’d stayed after her visa expired.
“The boys were born here, she had an established life here, she worked while she was here,’” Robin said.
Dorantes was arrested on January 14, 2011 and, after being hospitalized for skyrocketing blood pressure, was deported to Tijuana.
Her ex-husband helped gather funds and make arrangements with a smuggler while she stayed at shelters run by Catholic Charities.
“She wanted to come back to US as soon as possible to be with her kids, she was worry about them all the time and of course that is the love of a mother,” he wrote for her missing persons flyer. “She was the best mom to her kids always kissing them and telling them she love them.”
Chayo knew the journey could be dangerous but, after losing her mother to cancer when she was seven, she was determined to be there for her three sons, Robin said.
“You couldn’t tell Chayo what she could do and what she could not do, like if they said, ‘oh this is hard crossing, this is far,’ then she’d be like, ‘I can do it,'” Robin said last July. “Chayo had a personality that she could do anything.”
But what happened next remains a mystery.
And without resolution Chayo’s friends and family have only her painful, inexplicable absence.
“There’s so many things that could happen to her that I just don’t know,” Robin said. “I can’t believe that this happened, it’s like some stupid lifetime movie.”
She listed the people she’s talked to, hoping for clues, and the organizations she’s called, looking for traces of Chayo.
And for Robin, this week especially, not knowing is the worst part.
“I’ve lost people in my life and you know of course people say, oh it gets better with time and it usually does,” Robin said last Friday. “I don’t know what’s wrong this time, I don’t know if it’s the circumstances of how this happened but it’s really not getting easier.”