Proposed VAWA Bill Guts Protections to Abused Immigrant Women

Some members of the House of Representatives have proposed changes to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that could have disastrous consequences for the abused immigrant women Human Rights Initiative works so hard to help. 

This is URGENT because the House is voting on the bill, HR 4970, this Wednesday, May 16.  Please contact your Representative and ask him or her to stand with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and violent crime, and vote against HR 4970. You can find your representative here:

The new provisions essentially destroy the U Visa which aids immigrant victims of violent crime.  In addition, the changes will make it more difficult and risky for undocumented women who are married to abusiveU.S.Citizens or green card holders to obtain the relief they seek.  HRI strongly opposes HR 4970.  This bill dangerously politicizes the protection of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other violent crime.  VAWA has enjoyed broad bipartisan support since it was first enacted in 1994, and when it was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005.  The law has long been recognized as a critical law enforcement tool, helping the most vulnerable victims of abuse and violent crime in our communities, undocumented women and children.  However, HR 4970 includes changes that undermine years of protections for immigrants who have been victims of human rights abuses.

HR 4970 guts the U Visa of one of its central and most important provisions.  If this bill is enacted, immigrant victims of serious crimes will be reluctant to come forward, and community safety will be undermined.  The U Visa allows victims of violent crime to petition for immigration status if they assist law enforcement with the apprehension and prosecution of the offender.  The purpose behind the law is to encourage society’s most marginalized crime victims to come forward without fear of deportation so that police can do their jobs and catch criminals.  Law enforcement, which views the U Visa as a significant tool, must sign a document indicating the crime and how the U Visa applicant was helpful.  With the certification, and if the applicant meets other requirements, he or she is granted a U Visa for four years, and can apply for a green card after three years.  The proposed changes in HR 4970 would prevent successful U Visa applicants from later applying for a green card.  This renders the U Visa essentially meaningless and significantly reduces the incentive for these victims to come out of the shadows and reach out to police.  There is still a considerable fear among this population that they will be deported, a fear that would be quite reasonable if HR 4970 becomes law. 

In addition, the bill requires that the crime be under active investigation or prosecution at the time of law enforcement certification.  This would drastically reduce the number of victims who would be eligible.  Law enforcement often is reluctant to sign off until after a case is closed – they want to be sure that the victim’s testimony is not suspect because of any promise of immigration status. Many of HRI’s U Visa clients are children who have bravely come forward to report sexual abuse and other crimes; under HR 4970 many of them would be left without relief.

Another part of VAWA that is at risk is the VAWA self-petitioning process for women[1]  who are married to abusiveU.S. Citizens or green card holders.  These women are eligible to apply for immigration status because of their marriage, however, many abusers use the woman’s undocumented status as a tool in the cycle of abuse.  They refuse to apply for their spouses and threaten to call immigration on their undocumented wives, preventing the battered women from seeking help from the police or social services.  The VAWA self-petitioning process allows these women to apply on their own for a status that they would have obtained but for the abuse, and escape their abusive marriage.

HR 4970 gravely endangers these women and increases the risk that they will stay in their violent relationships.  Under this proposed law,U.S.immigration officers would get to notify and interview the abuser, tipping them off that the victim has filed for VAWA.  This eliminates crucial confidentiality protections that have been in place since 1994.  Abusers will be able to argue against their battered wives, continuing the cycle of control and abuse, and allowing the perpetrators to again be able to use the immigration system as a tool of exploitation.   What batterer is going to admit that he abused his wife to a government official?  In addition, HR 4970 discriminates against battered women by making them prove their cases by “clear and convincing evidence,” a much higher standard than is used for any other type of immigration case (or even the award of a multi-million dollar judgment in a civil case).  Thus, it will be more difficult for abused women and children to have their cases granted. 

Another change is that HR 4970 would seriously punish women who make mistakes on their applications.  There are already provisions in place that render someone ineligible if she willfully misrepresents the facts of her story, however, under the proposed law, any error would cause the woman to be removable from the United States on an expedited basis and would permanently bar her from any future immigration status.  She would also be referred to the FBI for criminal prosecution.  Innocent mistakes can be common, such as when a woman states a date from the past from memory that turns out to be wrong.  VAWA, as proposed in HR 4970, would not excuse any of these small errors but would treat her as someone who has purposefully committed fraud.  This would cause battered women to be reluctant to enter the VAWA process.

Another proposed change would move the adjudication of these petitions to local offices from a center inVermontwhere the immigration agents are specially trained in the VAWA law and in the effects of domestic violence and sexual assault.  Battered women would be interviewed by immigration agents who may not understand the cycle of violence many victims endure or the traumatic effects these assaults can have.  The process would also be longer and more expensive.  These petitions should continue to be reviewed by specialists. 

We urge you to contact your Representative and urge him or her to vote “NO” on HR 4970.  The abuse of women should not be politicized and VAWA is not a place to enact immigration reform.  Please stand with our brave clients and others like them by contacting your Representative NOW. 

[1] The U Visa and VAWA also protect men.  Indeed, many of HRI’s U Visa clients are men as are a few of our VAWA clients.  However, because the vast majority of domestic violence and sexual assault victims are women, we refer to those who will be most impacted by these changes to VAWA as women. 

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