Battered Immigrant Women Robbed of Protections in House VAWA

May 15, 2012
Although the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has historically been one of the least polarizing political issues since its introduction in 1994, the House and the Senate have found substantial disagreement over some of the law’s provisions this time around, especially the ones that relate to immigrant women. The House version of the bill, which is up for a vote this week, rolls back a number of provisions that protect the lives of undocumented females. VAWA as currently in effect allows battered immigrant women to “self-petition” to seek legal immigration status without needing the consent of their partners, many of whom would likely use the victims’ undocumented status as a tool to wield control and abuse. This particular process involves officials trained in cases of domestic violence in order to assure the confidentiality necessary to avoid confrontations with the abuser. House Republicans argue against the confidentiality provision by claiming that undocumented women fraudulently claim they are victims of domestic violence in order to receive a legal immigration status. The absence of the confidentiality provision in the House version of the bill would mean that immigration officers not trained to handle cases of domestic violence could contact the abusive partner to inform him that his partner is seeking citizenship. Whether some undocumented women do make false claims is a moot point. Many immigrants avoid any contact with authorities out of fear of deportation, and the elimination of the confidentiality provision would further frighten immigrant women into remaining in their abusive relationships. Moreover, the assumption underlying the removal of this provision – that undocumented women are fraudulently claiming to be victims of domestic violence in order to receive legal immigration status – trivializes the serious nature of domestic violence and the immense courage that is required for victims to come forward. Another way the House bill discourages immigrant women from reporting domestic violence is by creating barriers for victims who wish to assist law enforcement officials. Under the current law, undocumented immigrants who aid officials in domestic violence cases (so long as their help is certified as useful) may be granted a U-Visa, through which they are eligible to apply for legal status. The House bill, however, strips away the path to legal status,  thus making it possible for victims to be deported even after cooperating fully with law enforcement in a domestic violence investigation. These provisions in the House VAWA reauthorization are only two of the several ways that the bill would hurt immigrant women—and I haven’t even begun to discuss the provisions of the bill that would harm Native American and LGBT victims of domestic violence. Instead of considering this deeply flawed and dangerous reauthorization, the House should vote on the bipartisan reauthorization bill that has already passed the Senate. All three minority groups must be included in the VAWA reauthorization in order to ensure safety for all Americans. Jewish texts explicitly prohibit a man from forcing his wife to have sexual relations. Moreover, the obligation to prevent domestic violence is not solely an individual one: Jewish tradition commands us to not stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16). Therefore, it is our responsibility as a society to attempt to protect the safety of all citizens, a small part of which can be accomplished with education and prevention of domestic abuse in all its forms, both physical and emotional. Tell your representative to vote against the House version of the VAWA reauthorization and instead support a comprehensive and effective reauthorization, like the one that passed the Senate last month.

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