For nearly two decades, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has provided essential protections for immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. VAWA was created because Congress recognized that abusers routinely used victims’ immigration status to perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
Today, however, a U.S. House bill that proposes to amend VAWA threatens to undermine these crucial protections and put vulnerable victims at greater risk of abuse. HR 4970, co-sponsored by Representative Sandy Adams (R-FL), would eliminate confidentiality protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence and would create dangerous and unworkable requirements for victims of violent crime.
Lawmakers must understand the devastating human effects of this proposal. Had this bill been in effect two years ago, my clients would have suffered immeasurably. “Sara,” a victim of domestic violence, might not be alive today, and “David,” a child victim of sexual assault, would lack protection.
“Sara” entered the United States on a student visa to study at a prestigious university. Within a year, she fell in love and married a United States citizen. Her husband soon became controlling and aggressive, forcing her to quit school. His beatings became increasingly violent, culminating in a particularly vicious attack that left her unconscious. Neighbors called the police, who broke down the door to rescue her. Yet Sara withdrew the charges against him out of fear that he would kill her, as is too often the case. Without proper U.S. identification and legal status allowing her to financially support herself, Sara was afraid to escape her extremely dangerous husband.
Through a victim advocate she met while her husband was briefly jailed, Sara and I met and began to complete a VAWA application for legal residency in secret. Once it was approved, advocates strategically planned her escape and she was relocated to another state.
I know firsthand how dangerous an abuser can be and the risks that immigrant survivors take when they courageously decide to leave their abusers. Sara’s husband was so enraged that he began threatening me after he found my business card among things she had left behind. Fortunately, he has never found Sara. She is now a lawful permanent resident. If Sara had not had the promise of confidentiality she likely would not have taken the steps necessary to free herself from her abuser. Had it not been for the VAWA protections that keep victims’ secrets safe, Sara might not be alive today.
VAWA has provided a confidential way for victims of domestic violence, like Sara, to safely file for residency without having to depend on their abusers to legalize their status. However, HR 4970 completely eliminates confidentiality for applicants like Sara, by allowing immigration authorities to notify abusers of the application and solicit their testimony. HR 4970 creates a dangerous, even deadly, predicament for immigrant survivors of domestic violence who, like Sara, are undocumented solely because their abuser refused to file the necessary paperwork to legalize their status as a means of controlling her.
HR 4970′s proposal to amend VAWA also effectively eliminates protections for immigrant survivors of violent crime, including kidnapping, rape, human trafficking and domestic violence by creating untenable requirements for U-visa applications. The U-visa was created as a law-enforcement tool to encourage immigrants to report violent crime without fear of deportation. It requires that law enforcement endorse the application by certifying that the victim was cooperative throughout the investigation and prosecution of the crime.
My client, “David,” now a teenager, struggles with physical and mental disabilities. When David was 12, he was sexually battered and molested three times by a family friend. However, because he had the mental capacity of a 6-year-old, he was unable to communicate to his parents what happened. His parents didn’t realize that something was wrong until David exhibited fear of the abuser months later, alerting them to the situation. His parents called the police and testified against the abuser, helping to ensure the conviction of a serial child molester.
After the prosecution concluded, the state attorney’s office referred David and his parents to AI Justice and I filed U-visas for him and them. David is still recovering from the trauma. HR 4970, with its 60 day reporting requirement and requirement that the U-visa be filed during the criminal case, would make David ineligible for a U-visa. It would discourage David and countless other victims of sexual abuse from reporting crimes and assisting law enforcement, allowing child abusers like David’s to roam free, further endangering our communities.
For years, Congress has reaffirmed VAWA through bipartisan reauthorizations, demonstrating a commitment to the particular issues faced by immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, like Sara and David. HR 4970, on the other hand, demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the reality of survivors’ lives. The bill would roll back decades of protections for immigrant survivors without any justification, and most importantly, would have real consequences, endangering the population it was designed to protect and ultimately defeating the entire purpose of the Violence Against Women Act itself.