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Paroled Mexican Woman Fights Deportation

by Laura Wides Saturday, Apr. 17, 2004 at 6:17 PM

Copied from AP, about Maria Suarez. Follow the link to support the victim of this brutality.

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Maria Suarez was an immigrant from Mexico looking for work when she was kidnapped at 16 and held as a sex slave for five years.

After conspiring in the killing of her tormentor, she served 22 years in prison before being paroled last year. Now she faces another ordeal - the prospect of being torn from her family and sent back to a country she no longer knows.

Since January, Suarez has been held at an immigration detention center at the port of Los Angeles, awaiting an April 23 hearing under a federal law requiring those convicted of violent crimes to be deported after their release.

Suarez, a permanent U.S. resident whose ailing mother and eight siblings are U.S. citizens, is fighting to stay.

``I keep trying to understand what justice in this country means,'' she said. ``But I haven't seen it in my case.''

From the yard of the detention center, Suarez, now 43, catches glimpses of the life she missed.

``I can see the water. I can see the big boats. I see the hills,'' she told The Associated Press. ``I am so close, but I cannot be there.''

Supporters concede her case is difficult because of the strict immigration rules and the lack of laws protecting victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking at the time she was convicted.

Dorchen A. Leidholdt, co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in New York, called the case ``heartbreaking.''

``This case would have been very different if it had happened today,'' Leidholdt said. ``The conviction happened at a time when the battered women's movement and the rape crisis movement were in their early form, and the trafficking issue was nonexistent.''

Suarez's nightmare began in 1976 when she came - legally - with her father to the small town of Sierra Madre in eastern Los Angeles County.

She spoke little English and had only a sixth-grade education but still dreamed of supporting her parents. Soon after, a woman offered her a cleaning job.

``It was like, 'You want a little candy little girl?''' Suarez recalled. ``I was very young and naive.''

The woman took her to meet her new boss in the nearby city of Azusa. Anselmo Covarrubias, 68, claimed to be a witch doctor and was feared by many in his Mexican neighborhood. Police now say he had a history of buying young Mexican girls.

That night, Suarez asked to be taken home but was persuaded to stay. Later, she was told Covarrubias had bought her for $200. When she begged to leave, she says he held the door open, then ripped off her clothes and locked her outside.

``I am naked. I cannot go nowhere. And he's just laughing,'' Suarez remembered.

Eventually, he let her in, then she says he raped her and threatened to kill her family if she told anyone she was being held against her will.

Over the years, Suarez was allowed brief visits with her family and sent to work in a factory. But she says the repeated abuse and threats kept her from fleeing or telling anyone what was happening.

Parole officials would later confirm Suarez's claim of being a battered woman who thought she would be killed if she didn't follow orders.

In 1981, Covarrubias was killed by a neighbor whose wife he had harassed. Suarez said she found the husband bludgeoning Covarrubias with table legs and agreed to wash and hide the weapons.

The husband was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The wife served several years for acting as an accessory to the murder.

Suarez was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 25 years to life - a decade before California law recognized ``battered woman syndrome,'' which can be used in defense of murder suspects.

Her lawyer at the time was fighting his own conviction for felony drug trafficking and was disbarred two years after her trial.

Suarez's current attorney, Jessica Dominguez, hopes the immigration judge will review the murder case. She also is pursuing a stay of deportation under a recently passed federal law that gives discretion to authorities regarding immigrant victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.

Rep. Hilda Solis, a Democrat, has asked U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to halt the deportation proceedings.

Suarez's case is further complicated because it doesn't fall under the types of trafficking the federal government tends to focus on, such as prostitution rings or sweatshops, said Gail Pendleton, co-chairwoman of the National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women.

``From our experience, there's at least as many cases like this, where it's individuals who are basically being turned into forced labor. And usually there's sexual assault with rape.''

Immigration law specifies that those convicted of violent crimes be removed from the United States, said Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In prison, Suarez studied English, computers and even plumbing. She worked with mentally ill inmates and wants to become a counselor for other abused women.

``I came to this country full of dreams. I unfortunately got on the wrong road, and all my dreams went down the drain,'' Suarez said. ``But I don't think it's late. I think at the long end there's hope.''
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