Addressing violence against all women

  •    Meghan Rhoad

The bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) faces a likely vote in the Senate next week, but its provisions that would assist immigrant women who are victims of violence have drawn some inexplicable opposition. The country’s single most important law for addressing domestic abuse, sexual violence, and stalking has offered life-saving protections to immigrant women since it first passed in 1994.

Leaving a violent relationship is not easy for anyone. Abusers may threaten death or harm to children. For some women, escaping violence means risking poverty and homelessness. Immigrant women who lack authorization to live in the US face additional threats. Before VAWA, abusers were able to manipulate immigration law and make it into an unwitting accomplice to acts of violence against thousands of immigrant women every year.

Claims that the VAWA reauthorization exceeds its original mission by offering protection to battered immigrant women are wrong. And they are unconscionable. Too often abusers have held the possibility of deportation over women to keep them from leaving or going to the police, forcing them to choose between being separated from their home, their community and possibly their children or continuing to endure abuse.

Beginning with the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, Congress has taken steps to ensure that women do not have to make that impossible choice. The first VAWA created a process by which battered spouses of US citizens and legal permanent residents could apply for permanent residency without the approval of their abusive spouses. Then in 2000, Congress established two visas that provide a path to permanent residency for migrants who assist in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity: the T-visa for trafficking victims and the U-visa for victims of crime. It is the U-visa, a lifeline for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, that has become a focus of debate over the pending VAWA reauthorization.

The good news is that the U-visa has been incredibly successful. The fact that the U-visa cap was met in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, only two years after the visa was first made available, is a testament to what an invaluable tool the visa has become for law enforcement. To be eligible for a U-visa, a victim must have a certification from law enforcement indicating his or her cooperation with the investigation or prosecution. This helps law enforcement acquire important information that they need to bring criminals to justice and ensure general public safety. It also acts as a barrier to false claims.

The bad news is that the annual 10,000 visa cap is too low. If the U-visa ceases to be a reliable option, victims are again put in the position of worrying that they cannot seek safety without jeopardizing their residency in the US. The pending VAWA bill takes a step to address this, by allowing visas that were not used in years before the U-visa regulations were finalized to be used after the 10,000 annual cap is reached. At most this means 5,000 more visas could be issued in a given year. But this is what detractors have labeled a radical expansion of immigration law.

In fact, the immigration provisions in this bill are decidedly modest. Much more could and should have been done. In addition to increasing the visa cap, the original language in the bill would have clarified the law enforcement certification process for the visa.

To prevent real victims from being shut out of the process, Human Rights Watch and other advocates strongly supported allowing law enforcement officers with supervisory responsibilities to sign a certification and allowing the Department of Homeland Security to consider secondary evidence apart from the law enforcement certification of a victim’s helpfulness to an investigation. The compromise bill before the Senate now contains none of these elements. It simply attempts to extend the arbitrary cut-off on the number of victims who may eligible.

In fighting this modest measure, opponents of the U-visa may think they have found a more politically viable position than opposing VAWA as a whole. They would be wrong. For too long, the anti-violence movement has faced divide-and conquer-tactics that seek to make distinctions between “deserving” and “non-deserving” women. The bottom line for women is that everyone deserves protection from violence – regardless of the length of her skirt, regardless of her sexual orientation, and regardless of her immigration status.

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