It was 2015 when Alicia Kerber-Palma, then head of the Mexican consulate in Kansas City, Mo., realized that what they were offering just wasn’t enough for the women they were serving.
They might be coming to the consulate for passport guidance, but what if they were experiencing human trafficking, domestic violence, harassment, even torture? Wouldn’t this be a logical safe space to help them?
So Kerber-Palma, known as an women’s rights advocate throughout her 28 years in the Mexican Foreign Service, launched a pilot program to advise women on violence and trauma-related issues at the same time they received legal and civil services at the consulate. She brought the program with her when she arrived as head of Philadelphia’s office in 2016. It was called Ventanilla de Atención Integral a la Mujer (VAIM), or Window for Comprehensive Attention to Women.
The intention was to make consular services “within the reach of women and for women,” with the goal of giving migrants access to justice, Kerber-Palma said — a fundamental human right that all women should have.
Now, as Kerber-Palma moves on to her next post in Houston — her last day at Philly’s consulate is this week — Mexico’s Foreign Ministry has decided to implement the program in each of the 50 U.S. consulates. In her stead here, the number of cases referred grew from 10 to 600.
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One of the key issues the diplomatic network faces is helping Mexican women who experience a high rate of domestic violence in the community but don’t tend to share information about their situations due to cultural and social norms, Martha Bárcena-Coquí, the first woman to become the Mexican ambassador to the United States, said at a local event in March.
But the lack of trust in local institutions isn’t unique to Mexicans, the third-largest Latino community in Philly with about 20,000 residents. Cristina Pérez, who has been a counselor in Philadelphia for 14 years and is the community outreach director at Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR), said Latina women are often taught that any trauma they have suffered is a burden they should bear in silence. They don’t believe they deserve justice, whether it’s systematic, through the courts, or societal, from their peers. (The consulate refers women and LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence to WOAR for counseling.)
That adds a layer of sensitivity to the equation when helping traumatized, migrant and/or undocumented women in the U.S.
“The code is, ‘You don’t talk about this, you don’t say anything about it,' because these women follow social traditions and religious values that support and perpetrate violence and trauma," Pérez said, "despite these being the same support systems that they go to when looking for an escape in their countries of origin.”
For example, a religious mandate might tell a woman that she shouldn’t divide her family under any circumstances, but she might feel comfortable sharing only with her priest that her husband beats her.
Pérez added that with the recent deportations, more women have become the heads of household, and don’t want to risk legal procedures when they are solely responsible for the rent.
One Mexican immigrant, a 28-year-old North Philadelphia woman who didn’t want to be named because she is in legal proceedings after a violent relationship, called the program “a relief.”
After she filed a domestic abuse complaint in 2017 against her husband of four years, he called her with threats, and came to look for her at her sister’s home.
“He would call my parents and my brother-in-law to tell them that the cops had our information and photographs, that they would deport us,” she said.
When her sister visited the consulate to request a consular ID card — a legal document for Mexican nationals outside of Mexico — a clerk suggested starting with a protection-from-abuse order followed by a divorce.
“I would have stayed with fear because I felt bad and disorientated,” she said.
Now, she is awaiting a work permit. A lawyer continues to process a visa on her behalf. And she visits a psychologist once a month for her post-traumatic stress diagnosis. She also received financial support from the consulate, which helps as she tries to make ends meet serving, cooking, washing dishes, and cleaning at a North Philly restaurant.
Kerber-Palma said that VAIM was designed so that consulate staffers could screen for these situations. Those powers of discernment have been possible through training about gender-related issues and empathy for survivors of violence and trauma, and establishing partnerships and connections with 36 local organizations, including the Philadelphia Bar Association, health centers, schools, chambers of commerce, LGBTQ advocates, the FBI, and various police departments around Philadelphia, Delaware and South Jersey.
Here’s how that interaction might work, according to Kerber-Palma: When a person comes to the service window at the office on the second floor of the Bourse requesting a standard consulate service, a staffer will ask targeted questions to be able to gather more information. If they determine that person is in danger, they signal to diplomatic personnel with codes, and that staffer, depending on the sensitivity of the situation, would approach them outside the window or follow up with a discreet call. They could offer legal aid, assistance filing for a visa U for victims of a crime or a visa T for victims of human trafficking, or refer them to trauma treatment centers or shelters.
According to consulate records, 80 percent of those who receive referrals are domestic violence cases, mothers or students, between ages 18 and 44.
Mexico’s foreign ministry hasn’t yet designated who will replace Kerber-Palma here. But she noted that Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard has already appointed three women of the Foreign Service to the three consulates in the U.S. that have the greatest number of cases processed in high-density population cities: Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.
In the meantime, Kerber-Palma said, she’s satisfied with how she’s leaving the office here.