Update — May 8, 2012 — The House Judiciary Committee approved, by a 17-15 vote, H.R. 4970, the bill discussed below. After much debate, each of the troubling provisions mentioned below was left within the bill. It now moves to the full House of Representatives for a vote, so we encourage everyone to call and express their concerns to their Representative. For a full analysis of the amendments offered today, please visit MicEvHill.com. Please also take a look at this letter signed by evangelical and other religious leaders regarding the immigration provisions of H.R. 4970.
One of the most personally fulfilling jobs that I’ve ever had was also profoundly disturbing. In my role as an immigration legal counselor at World Relief, I occasionally assisted women who were “self-petitioning” for legal status under the provisions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The law allows individuals who can demonstrate that they have been victims of domestic abuse at the hands of their U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident spouse to file a petition for legal status without relying upon their abuser to file the petition. The law was passed in recognition of the fact that abusers often use immigration legal status as a weapon—i.e., if you call the police to report that I’m beating you (or our children), I’ll have you deported—and to allow abused wives (or husbands, as the law is gender neutral, though all of my cases have involved female victims) a means of relief.
Because of VAWA, I’ve been able to help a number of women over the past several years escape the fear of undocumented status and of their husband’s abuse. Some have left their abusive spouses; others have stayed with them, but they now know that they can call the police immediately if he becomes violent, without fearing that they will be deported, leaving their children with an unfit father. VAWA cases are incredibly complex and require a great deal of documentation, so I’ve spent more time with and gotten to know my VAWA clients better than most other clients, whose documents might only take an hour or two to complete. When we finally win a VAWA case, and that woman has her green card and the security that goes with it, it’s one of the most profoundly satisfying feelings I’ve ever experienced.
But VAWA cases are also, in another sense, my least favorite cases. They haunt me. To present a strong, winnable case, I need to document as many details as possible of the nature of the domestic abuse, asking uncomfortable questions and, I fear, sometimes re-traumatizing these women by asking them to recount their experiences in detail. I can’t—for legal confidentiality reasons and for the sake of decency—repeat all the stories that I’ve heard, but the horror of the physical, psychological, sexual, and sometimes spiritual abuse that many of my clients have suffered nauseates me even to recall it. The evil of which men (and, I suppose, women, too) are capable is chilling. It’s all the more disturbing when the abuser looks to the casual observer—who sees him when he’s sober and sitting in church—like a kind, successful Christian businessman, teacher, or police officer (which also explains why the woman would have consented to marry him in the first place). In some ways, I wish I did not know that anyone could be so malicious and cruel, or that anyone suffered so profoundly.
The sad reality, though, is that domestic violence is incredibly common, and it will not go away because we ignore it. About one in ten women in the United States has been the victim of severe domestic violence. Immigrants are significantly more likely than US citizens to be victims of domestic violence but (and, perhaps, because) they are less likely to report incidents of domestic violence to law enforcement, particularly if they are undocumented. That’s why the Violence Against Women Act is so important, and why I was befuddled and distraught late last week to learn that the House of Representatives is considering a reauthorization of the bill (H.R. 4970) that would substantially weaken the immigration-related provisions of VAWA found in Title VIII of the bill. Perhaps most startling, Section 801 of the bill would allow the abusive spouse to be notified that his wife is filing for legal status under VAWA. While that might seem even-handed, the reality is that many women who apply under VAWA are terrified that their husband will retaliate with severe abuse or even murder if they were to find out that they were applying for legal status, and given the police reports that I’ve read of their husbands’ past behavior, I’d say that their fears are entirely reasonable. Notifying these abusers—and giving them the chance to compose (in fluent English, which their abused wives often do not speak to defend themselves adequately) a smooth set of lies and excuses—will scare many vulnerable women away from applying and keep them in a cycle of abuse. The bill would also heighten the burden of proof that the victim must show—already the “preponderance of the evidence” that the woman has indeed been abused, is lawfully married, and meets all other requirements—to a higher standard.
H.R. 4970, as it currently stands, would also be a boon for human traffickers, because it would dramatically minimalize the value of the U visa, an important tool used by law enforcement to encourage victims of sex trafficking and labor trafficking to testify against their traffickers and secure convictions. The U visa can be granted to a victim of certain violent crimes—including human trafficking and domestic violence—whom the police or the District Attorney certifies has been helpful in the prosecution of a crime. For trafficking victims whose traffickers use their lack of legal status as a cage to keep them afraid to report their situation, the U visa is vital: as the law currently works, it allows police to tell victims that they can come forward without fear and that, by helping in the prosecution of their traffickers, they will be eligible to apply for a visa that leads to permanent legal status. But Section 806 of the bill currently before the House would eliminate the ability of a U visa holder to apply for permanent resident status, leaving them in a limbo status with a temporary visa. For trafficking victims already fearful to come forward—because of the threats of their traffickers and the shame that their traffickers have cultivated in them—the elimination of a path to permanent security in the U.S. would doubtlessly keep many victims from coming forward at all.
I suspect that most Members of Congress do not entirely understand the ramifications of this bill; I certainly don’t think any of them intend to give such a gift to human traffickers or want to see more women beaten. The reality, though, is that these short-sighted provisions of this bill would have those effects. But it’s not too late to stop it—if we act fast. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider H.R. 4970 on Tuesday: particularly if your Representative is on that committee—but even if he or she is not, because eventually the bill will go to the full House for a vote—you can make a simple phone call to your Representative’s office, identify yourself as a constituent, and ask him or her to ensure that the Violence Against Women Act is passed in ways that preserve vital protection for immigrant victims of domestic violence and for foreign-born victims of trafficking. (To find your Representative’s name, enter your zip code on the House of Representatives website; the representative’s Washington, D.C. office telephone number will usually be on the bottom of their webpage or on a “contact” page.) I hope that you’ll call, and that you’ll use Facebook, Twitter, email, or whatever other means available to you to encourage others to do so as well. And I ask that you please pray with me that God, in whose hands, Scripture says, are the hearts of rulers (Proverbs 21:1) would intervene on behalf of vulnerable women.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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