Sunday, September 20, 2020

Immigration plays a key role in Violence Against Women Act debate

After almost two decades, a federal law that protects immigrants who are victims of domestic and sexual violencehas become the subject of debate in D.C.

The Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, has provided funding since 1994 to assist victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence and identify and prosecute their abusers. But for the first time in the legislation’s longstanding history of bipartisan support — the act was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 without a hitch — the law that’s again up for renewal is causing a stir in Congress.

Representatives on both sides of the aisle are using the bill to name-call and draw a line in the sand on hot-button issues such as benefits for immigrants without legal status.

Recent history of the bill

The Senate approved a version of VAWA on April 24 by a vote of 68 to 31. Every woman and every Democrat voted in support of the bill, as well as 15 Republicans.

But the House of Representatives is slated to take up its own version of a VAWA reauthorization bill this week. The legislation, which was authored by Rep. Sandy Adams, a Republican from Florida, leaves out some of the Senate provisions and inserted others that led the White House to deem the bill “a significant step backwards from the existing law.”

Another House version of VAWA, authored by a female Democrat from Wisconsin, is waiting to pass a committee vote. Its supporters say that version is more closely aligned with the Senate bill.

But it’s likely that the Republican-authored version of VAWA will pass this week. Adams herself is a survivor of domestic violence and the bill already has the backing of the full House leadership. If no Republican woman breaks with her party, it’s a shoo-in.

The next step would be a showdown between Senate and House members in a conference committee. They’d hash out their differences and come up with a final bill that would go before both houses for a vote.

One of the major conflicts between the Senate and House versions is over visa provisions for battered undocumented immigrants. Known as the U visa, it was created under VAWA in 2000 to encourage victims without legal status to report their abusers and cooperate with law enforcement, providing victims with a path to citizenship.

But the House bill places restrictions on U visa applications that immigration lawyers say would make it difficult for them to recommend that any woman apply for a U visa.

As the law stands, the victim’s identity and report of abuse are kept confidential. The House bill adds a provision that would allow immigration officers to inform abusers that an alleged victim is applying for immigration status, giving the abusive partner the choice to be interviewed as evidence in the case. House Republicans say this would help reduce fraudulent claims, arguing some foreign nationals have gotten residency status by making up abuse.

The House bill also holds the U visa cap at 10,000 (the Senate bill raises it by 5,000). Republicans say raising the cap would increase the deficit.

To qualify for a visa, the bill requires that the abuse currently be under investigation or in the prosecution phase, a move that lawyers say punishes victims if the judicial system is moving slowly. The House bill also eliminates the provision that allows U visas holders to seek legal permanent residency after their visa expires.

“If we keep immigrant victims in the shadows, it undermines public safety and community policing,” stated Rosie Hildalgo, the director of public policy at a domestic violence-centered organization, Casa de Esperanza at a recent press conference. “These restrictions are completely unnecessary.”

This article originally appeared on VOXXI.