Inside Sacramento's Mil Mujeres, a small branch of a national non-profit legal organization, a handful of workers make it their mission to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Their clients, though, face an extra burden. They're all undocumented, often with nowhere else to turn.
"The controlling and the aggressiveness started to escalate. Basically the abusive cycle started," said one woman who found hope at Mil Mujeres. She didn’t want to be identified, we’ll call her Maria.
Maria survived nearly nine years of abuse, both physical and emotional, at the hands of her husband.
Maria’s parents brought her into the U.S. illegally when she was a child. She says she'll never forget the day immigration officials came to her home and removed her mother and father.
"It affected all of us tremendously, having our parents taken away from us and feeling like there was nothing we could do about it,” said Maria.
She wasn’t deported, but grew up with a constant fear that at any moment she could be.
Maria says that’s why years later, when her husband, an American citizen, abused her, she stayed quiet-not wanting to risk deportation for the sake of her two daughters.
Maria’s status in the U.S. was complicated. Though she married an American, to get her residency, she had to rely on her husband to petition for her. Needless to say, he refused.
When asked if she felt she could go to police about her husband’s abuse, she said it was out of the question for her.
"No because he would threaten me that no one’s going to believe me. He would always threaten me with, I could just call immigration and they'll take you away and you'll never see your girls again,” said Maria.
"That's part of the threat. Go ahead and call police, go ahead and report what's happening. Nothing's going to happen to me, they're just going to take you away," said Erica Vazquez, Executive Director of Mil Mujeres Sacramento Branch.
The organization seeks to help undocumented immigrants like Maria find relief. One way they’re able to do that is through the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA allows those like Maria to go to law enforcement without being deported. It also puts them on a faster track to legal residency by letting them file their own petition, without their spouse.
"It's a four year visa. And because she's married to a citizen, she's able to adjust status to become a resident a lot faster,” said Vazquez.
Today, Mil Mujeres has more than 90 clients, all women they're helping to get residency in some way.
Nationwide thousands have benefitted from VAWA.
"It's a very compassionate law that helps people who do the right thing to get something good," said Sharon Rummery, the Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Rummery says qualifying for VAWA protection isn’t easy. Applicants need physical evidence of abuse like police reports or affidavits from a judge.
“[Abuse Victims] can self-petition as long as it’s something they are able to demonstrate. And most people who are suffering violence, that’s something they can,” said Rummery.
After getting legal aid from Mil Mujeres, Maria is now on the way to becoming a permanent resident.
She is separated from her husband, and she even found a job which allows her to take care of her daughters.
She hopes other women who are suffering in silence find the strength to come forward. She’s certainly glad she did.
"My daughters don't have to live in fear of having their mother taken away,” Maria said.