Congress Should Protect Immigrant Women From Abuse, Not Enable Abusers


Normally the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is cause for celebration. But not this year. Instead, the long applauded bill that provided hundreds of vulnerable, abused women protection from harm has fallen into the political juggernaut that has become our Congress.

The Violence Against Women Act, VAWA, was first passed in 1994 as part of the Crime Bill. The purpose of the initial VAWA was “to deter and punish violent crimes against women,” by providing law enforcement with additional tools to combat domestic violence, and by making it easier for victims to come forward. Included in the act was a subsection entitled “Protections for Battered Immigrant Women and Children,” the first major legislation addressing the plight of immigrant women suffering from domestic abuse, publicly revealing the horrifying fact that immigration laws had been utilized as an effective tool for abuse and control of immigrant women.

Because immigration laws grant the petitioning spouse full control over the immigration process, an abusive US citizen or legal permanent resident could marry an immigrant woman with no status and threaten that if she revealed the abuse, she would be deported or he would no longer sponsor her or her children. These threats proved a very efficient way to isolate and silence victims, and without leaving visible marks.

Upon the recognition that US immigration laws were being used to embolden abusers, a bipartisan Congress acted powerfully to remove the control of the petitioning process from the abuser and to return a battered immigrant woman to the immigration posture she would have held based on her marriage. There were clear evidentiary standards that needed to be met and a specialized team was trained to adjudicate these cases. The reauthorizations of 2000 and 2005 helped to further remove barriers for victims of domestic abuse to access protection and relief. We now have well developed self-petitioning provisions for survivors to move through the family petition process independent of their abusers, and the U visa, which provides protection and relief to victims who assist law enforcement with the investigation or prosecution of crime.

Now, however, both these provisions are in serious jeopardy.

Today, the House of Representatives passed its version of VAWA, called the Adams bill or H.R. 4970, which undermines the very foundations of a decade of progress. One of the most dangerous proposals is to remove the critical confidentiality provisions that currently exist and instead allow the abuser to know of the attempt to get help and to have a voice in the process.

Prior to the confidentiality regulations women were petrified for themselves and their families if there was any chance of the abuser finding out that they had revealed the secrets of the abuse. Witnesses who were family, friends or neighbors of the abuser would never come forward if there were a chance the abuser would find out. Removing the confidentiality provisions would render the bill useless and would present a danger to self-petitioners. Another provision in the House bill disallows a U visa holder from obtaining the legal permanent resident status at the end of the process, the security the law initially granted a victim willing to take the risk to cooperate with the prosecution. The bill would keep her in an uncertain state, unable to gain the security to heal and move forward.

Like any administrative system, it had its flaws, but more than any other section of the immigration machine, it worked well. So why break what is working? Unfounded allegations of fraud. This would not be a first for unpopular, vulnerable women. Back in 1986, the Marriage Fraud Act was passed creating an extra layer of review and bureaucracy for couples seeking immigration status through marriage. A two-year conditional status was imposed, which proved a nightmare for battered women. It was only after the then Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) moved Congress to pass this bill that it was revealed that the data presented was “suspected” and not actual fraud. We cannot allow unsubstantiated fears and general ignorance of the realities of domestic violence to again mount obstacles.

Now is the time for action. Congress must hear the voices of survivors and advocates who understand how difficult it already is to access protection and to leave an abusive marriage. Please do all you can to let your elected officials know that the Adams bill from the House Judiciary will endanger women. Ask your elected officials to consider support for the Senate version of VAWA (S. 1925) that does not contain these toxic provisions.

Domestic violence harms us all. Please get word out to your varying circles. Your voice can make a difference!

Alizabeth Newman is a clinical professor at the CUNY School of Law’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Clinic. Newman was the founder and former director of SEPA Mujer, based in Central Islip.