Tatyana was finishing college in her native Ukraine when she unexpectedly became pregnant. When the man opted not to stick around, Tatyana's mother suggested she try to meet someone from the United States to marry and "straighten out my personal life," Tatyana recalls. She followed the recommendation, putting up her "ad" online, but soon one of her girlfriends who had lived in the U.S. introduced her, then 20 years old, to an older man from California. They talked online, and he came to visit her in Ukraine in 2000.
"We kind of liked each other, and a relationship began," Tatyana says. He proposed to her, she accepted, and they filed the necessary paperwork for a K-1 visa, which the Department of State refers to as the "nonimmigrant visa for a fiancé(e)," but Tatyana calls the "mail-order bride" visa.
By the end of the year, she and her 3-year-old son were in California, living with her new fiancé. She would stay with him for only 16 days, before his sexual and physical abuse drove her to running away in the middle of night, with only her child, their passports, and the clothes on their backs, to the home of a neighbor she had met just that afternoon.
Tatyana (her full name withheld to protect her identity) was one of the 33,000 people who enter the U.S. with K-1 visas on average each year, according to statistics from the Department of State. While not all of them are caught in abusive relationships, the parameters of the K-1 visa and the hostility of U.S. policy toward immigrants can condemn those unfortunate enough to be victims of domestic violence to years or even decades of suffering. Tatyana's story illustrates how such abuse functions, and how pervasive it can be.
To say that Tatyana's fiancé lured her to California under false pretenses would be an understatement. He had lied about his age (he was 52 years old), his past marriages (he was thrice married — once to a much younger college student like Tatyana), and his children (he had five — two of whom were older than Tatyana). While she was in Ukraine, there was no way for her to know this; once she got to the U.S., there was nothing she could do about it. Stranded on the opposite side of the planet from anyone she knew but her son, she was effectively trapped.
After arriving in California, things quickly moved from bad to worse. Tatyana's fiancé became sexually abusive toward her and physically abusive toward her son. She harbored this quietly for 16 days, until a chance meeting with another Ukrainian woman, Nadia, who happened to live a block away. Tatyana poured her heart out to this stranger and her husband, both of whom asked Tatyana to come to them if anything happened. They mentioned stories they had heard of women with K-1 visas being forced into sex trafficking, which shocked Tatyana. That night, she returned home to her fiancé and tried to share the happy news of meeting a fellow Ukrainian. Perhaps resenting any hint of her independence from him, Tatyana's fiancé became enraged. Locking her out, he beat her son in the bathroom. Once he was through, Tatyana grabbed the three-year-old and ran to Nadia's house.
"I literally had just my son, a nightgown, and passports. Nothing else," Tatyana explains. "All my possessions I left in his house. I had no documents, no photographs ... no clothes, no nothing."
Nadia and her husband did what they could to help. They called the local immigration office, which said that, because Tatyana's visa was not expired and she was not in the country illegally, this was not an immigration issue. "They basically said, 'You got the girl, you take care of her now,'" she recalls. Nadia and her husband taught Tatyana how to call 9-1-1 and told her that, even if she couldn't explain what was happening with her extremely limited English, she should speak to the operator in Ukrainian or Russian because — should she be murdered — the authorities could have the tape translated. From the window, they could see Tatyana's fiancé driving the streets, hunting for her. They heard from a neighbor that he was asking around if anyone knew where a "Russian lady" lived. Tatyana and her son had been living with Nadia and her husband, in secret, for a month.
"They wanted me to leave California," Tatyana says of Nadia and her husband. "Even I understood I had to go."
As Tatyana had no money to return to Ukraine, and Nadia and her husband were in financial straits themselves, the best option seemed to be finding someone else in the U.S. who could help. Without any family or other friends stateside, Tatyana had to turn to one of the men she met through the "ad" she previously posted online. He understood the danger that Tatyana and her son were in, and volunteered to help. He bought them tickets to travel from California to New York, where he picked them up to return to his home in Connecticut.
"I knew him a little bit from correspondence, and later on we got married," Tatyana says. "Unfortunately, from one abusive relationship in America, I jumped very clearly into another abusive relationship."
Like Tatyana's first fiancé, her new husband was physically abusive, but he was also uniquely manipulative in wielding her immigration status against her. K-1 visas expire within 90 days of entry into the U.S., by which time the fiancé or fiancée and his or her partner are required to get married, and presumably then apply for permanent residency, or a "green card." Although Tatyana and her husband eventually married, and later even had a daughter together, he refused to support her in establishing her legal status within the U.S. Despite earning a six-figure salary, he insisted she pay for lawyers, filing fees, and fines (her first fiancé had lied about his marriages and children on her K-1 application, which stuck her with a $2,000 penalty), which was impossible as she was legally unable to work. She went to a refugee center looking for free legal aid, but they refused her case. Upon the 90-day expiration date of her K-1 visa, Tatyana became undocumented; after overstaying her visa for six months, she was barred from applying for a new visa for three years; after overstaying her visa for a year, she was barred for a decade; after 9/11 and its consequent tightening of immigration laws, even those remote possibilities became ever more distant.
Her husband's rationale for refusing to assist Tatyana eventually revealed itself. When he became violent, as he often did over their nearly 13-year marriage, he would threaten her with deportation if she dared to report him. "Threats were everywhere: 'I will deport you,' 'I will make sure that you will get deported first and your son will be kept in captivity in the United States,' 'you will never see him'—many things like that," she recalls. "I was afraid to call 9-1-1 because I was afraid to be deported. I had a little girl born in the United States, and if anything would happen, if anything would come up, then me and my son would be deported back to Ukraine, and my little girl would be left behind. And that separation from my child was unbearable. I couldn't do that. I was willing to take abuse rather than lose my girl."
And so Tatyana persevered. The family moved from Connecticut to New Jersey and finally to Georgia, where the car-centric culture left her more stranded than when she had first arrived in California. Without a driver's license and unwilling to risk obtaining one through illicit means, she and her children were left to the mercy of neighbors each time her husband went on business trips, which he did frequently. "I wanted to be a human," Tatyana says when discussing her desire to obtain her documents. "I wanted to have something, something I can live with, something I can use to not have to go to my neighbor's house at two o'clock in the morning and beg them to drive me to the clinic because my son is sick and my husband is outside of the country, not beg them to give me a ride to the grocery store."
"Many good-hearted people volunteered to help me purchase a car, to teach me to drive for free, to drive me to the right places," she continues. "And of course, I lied to people, saying I'm not driving for medical reasons, I'm not getting an education because I do not want to get an education, I do not work because I do not want to work. I would have to paint a picture like I was some kind of dumb person — doesn't want this, doesn't want that."
Eventually the longing to be human forced Tatyana into action. An avid churchgoer, she was able to make friends through her Orthodox church, one of whom recommended a Catholic charity that offered free immigration services. There, in 2011, she met a lawyer who thought he could help by filing Tatyana's case under a provision of the Violence Against Women Act, which offers undocumented immigrants in abusive relationships with U.S. citizens a path to permanent residency.
But petitioning for VAWA immigration benefits is both notoriously difficult and requires reporting yourself to the Department of Homeland Security — making deportation a very possible outcome. Tatyana was warned of a particular clause regarding "self-slavery," or the applicant's supposed refusal to leave an abusive relationship when presented with the opportunity for escape. Her lawyer shared the story of a woman who had been forced into prostitution by her husband after coming to the U.S. on a K-1 visa. Connecting the signs of physical abuse with her limited English, one of her customers tried to take pity on her and called 9-1-1. The lawyer she was eventually assigned filed for VAWA immigration benefits, but the petition was rejected by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS argued that, because her husband had been pimping her for years yet there was no record of her ever reaching out for help, this was a case of self-slavery.
Undeterred, Tatyana began building her own case. Throughout her marriage, she had occasionally contacted the authorities when her husband's abuse became too much to bear. Back in Connecticut, she had made a police report and even took her husband to court, where she received a nine-month protective order and he was mandated anger management. But when she attempted to retrieve those records from the county, she found that her husband had everything sealed. The only evidence of her reporting him was a single fax she happened upon at home: It was paperwork that he had sent to a police station, trying to seal a case of child abuse that she had reported. "That was my golden ticket," Tatyana says. Besides the fax, her lawyer took statements from neighbors who had witnessed abuse or its aftermath, as well as friends whom Tatyana had confided in. Altogether, it took a year and a half to assemble all the evidence they could gather.
Finally, in 2013, Tatyana both filed for divorce and petitioned for VAWA immigration benefits. "They briefly looked at my case and sent it to investigation," she says of DHS. "That was a huge relief. It means that you came to Homeland Security openly — 'here I am, who I am, where I live, and what's going on,' — and you're not subject to deportation, at least until the end of the investigation." The DHS's decision came back in 2014: They approved Tatyana's case, and both she and her son were granted green cards.
"My prayers have been answered," Tatyana says, describing her life today. She is happily remarried, still living in Georgia with her new husband, their child, and her daughter from her previous marriage. Her oldest son is now in the Coast Guard, which "he really loves." Tatyana may be back to being a stay-at-home mom, but now it is on her own terms. She has a driver's license and is planning on applying for citizenship.
Despite her escape, Tatyana still very clearly remembers the fear she used to live with. She says, her voice increasingly trembling: "Living with that fear kills you. It emotionally destroys your insides. What if you get caught? What are you going to do? What if? That 'What if?' is in your head, in your mind, in your heart. You shut down. Then, slowly, you start to realize you're nothing, you're totally nothing. You have no papers, no ID. You only have a body, which breathes, lives, but you cannot do anything. You can't. You're nothing, you're totally nothing."
"You have to understand," she continues, "there's millions of us."
This story originally appeared as How anti-immigration policy spurs domestic violence on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.