By Martin Kidston
A Missoula woman who was publicly strangled by her abusive husband in 2010 is still facing imminent deportation and separation from her four citizen children for possessing what authorities say was a fake green card.
Immigration attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath said the U.S. Department of Justice relied upon the husband to obtain a warrant for the arrest of his client, Kathleen Benitez-Field, shortly after her husband was convicted of partner/family member assault.
The case, which is now nearly five years old, is on the verge of reaching a conclusion, which may see Benitez-Field deported if the court declines to hear oral arguments on why she should stay under protections granted to certain immigrants under the Violence Against Women Act, along with other federal regulations.
“We want the judge to decide whether or not she’s entitled to relief to stay here in the U.S. before they unilaterally deport her and separate her from her four U.S. citizen children,” Haque-Hausrath said on Monday. “She got this card only because her abusive ex-spouse refused to petition for her immigration status, despite being married for over five years.”
Benitez-Field has been living in the U.S for more than 18 years, dating back to her arrival in 1992 as an au pair. She was attacked in public by her husband in 2010 – an assault that left bruising on her neck and a call for assistance to the University of Montana’s Office of Public Safety.
While the husband ultimately pleaded guilty to the attack, he retaliated several days later by tipping off an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent regarding Benitez-Field’s immigration status. Haque-Hausrath said the man told ICE that his wife was an undocumented alien who should be deported.
“The abusive ex-spouse’s intended purpose in reporting my client was to ensure her removal, so she was unable to pursue further criminal action against him, and so he could assume custody of their children by default,” Haque-Hausrath said. “A lot of abusers do this.”
While Benitez-Field obtained a restraining order against her husband, the man continued to harass her, calling or texting her 150 different times within a month.
The Missoula County Attorney’s office eventually brought felony charges against the husband for violating the order of protection. Benitez-Field later dropped the charges out of fear of not seeing her children due to the ongoing deportation proceedings.
The father has since defaulted on his custody of the children, Haque-Hausrath said.
“It was only because he managed to get her into deportation proceedings that she had to drop the charges against him,” he said. “Because she might be facing deportation, if she wanted any relationship with the kids, she couldn’t be trying to bring criminal charges against him.”
In 2013, with ICE still pressing for deportation, Haque-Hausrath petitioned the court for relief. Missoula District Judge Dana Christensen granted that relief, effectively pausing ICE’s deportation process, at least temporarily.
But the Department of Homeland Security disagreed. While abused spouses of U.S. citizens can apply for relief under the Violence Against Women Act, Haque-Hausrath said the agency has stated its intention to deny the request.
“The only reason for the denial was because they said she was ineligible because of the conviction for having the fake green card,” said Haque-Hausrath. “It’s absurd circular reasoning. She only needed that fake card because her husband was abusing her and refusing to give her immigration status.”
By 2014, Benitez-Field also had applied for a U visa – something that’s retained for victims of crimes who cooperate with law enforcement in convicting criminal perpetrators. Deputy Missoula County Attorney Suzy Boyle certified the petition that year on behalf of Benitez-Field.
At the time, however, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office was facing heightened scrutiny for its own handling of sexual assault cases. The DOJ suggested the Missoula office had an “institutionalized indifference” for female victims.
As a result, Haque-Hausrath said, Homeland Security has stated its intent to also deny the woman’s U visa application, just as it denied her relief under the Violence Against Women Act.
“If Homeland Security agreed to at least let her see an immigration judge, then she would almost certainly be granted relief by that judge,” Haque-Hausrath said. “Unless their position changes, we will soon be without options to keep her here, and she will be deported. We’re hoping the court will not allow them to deport her until the court can fully hear our legal arguments.”
This week, Haque-Hausrath plans to file one last petition looking to win that opportunity. He’s also asking the court to unseal the case, hoping it results in public attention.
“(Homeland Security) is clearly in violation of legal precedent,” Haque-Hausrath said. “I’m trying to get the issues in front of federal court before she’s deported. Once she’s deported, it’s too late. This whole thing will come to a head fairly soon.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org