A few weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed a version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that substantially weakens protections for immigrant women. Amongst other problematic provisions, the House version of VAWA would allow abusive spouses the opportunity to testify in what is currently a confidential “self-petitioning” process for the battered spouse of a U.S. citizen, whose abusive husband has usually not filed a petition for legal status for his wife precisely because he is using her undocumented status as a weapon, threatening to have her deported if she calls the police or leaves. Having worked on several Violence Against Women Act cases as a legal counselor with World Relief, it is clear to me that in most cases, my client would have been unwilling to self-petition if she knew her husband was going to be informed that she was doing so, because, in many cases, he would beat her for exposing his treatment toward her. As a result, instead of achieving legal status and freedom from domestic violence, many would probably still be stuck in the cycle of cruel abuse.
The rationale for eliminating this confidentiality provision that was put forward by several Representatives was a concern over fraud. That accusation came, in particular, from a lobbying group called Stop Abusive & Violent Environments (SAVE), which believes that men and women are equally at risk of domestic violence (a rather preposterous presumption from my observation), and thus that the high percentage of female victims and male perpetrators is clear evidence of fraud. The treasurer for SAVE, as Christianity Today reports, runs a business called “Encounters International” that arranges marriages between American men and Russian women, and who was sued for several hundred thousand dollars by a Ukrainian woman who was abused by the husband with whom the business paired her and who eventually received legal status (independent of her abusive husband) under VAWA. Bewilderingly, leaders of a few evangelical groups joined on to SAVE’s letter opposing the existing version of VAWA. (I’m glad to note that leaders of many more recognizable evangelical institutions signed on to a letter expressing concern over the harmful provisions of the House bill).
This is not the first instance when certain legislators have opposed protections for immigrants on account of their concerns over fraud: the same concern was cited in a congressional debate last year that led to the temporary suspension of a program to allow evangelical Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities to escape discrimination in Iran. The same concerns came up over the debate on the DREAM Act, which (if it had passed) would have allowed certain immigrants who entered the U.S. as children to earn legal status.
Representative Lamar Smith—who seems to be the House of Representatives’ self-appointed immigration fraud watchdog—claims that “there are no safeguards in place to prevent fraud or to prevent an immigrant from fabricating tales,” but that simply is untrue. The United States Citizenship & Immigration Services has extensive processes to verify the information that an application reports, plus an entire Fraud Detection Unit. When we submit a VAWA self-petition on behalf of a battered woman, for example, it is usually several inches thick, including extensive evidence such as police reports, photographs of the effects of physical abuse, notarized testimony from witnesses to the abuse, and often reports from the domestic violence shelter where the woman has been living. Even still, we often get requests for further evidence. I’m sure that there are isolated instances of attempted fraud, but there are many safeguards in place to catch it.
As a legal service provider, I am bound by law and by legal ethics to ensure that nothing untrue is reported on any form on which I sign my name. That’s a responsibility we take very seriously—even though, at times, it means I cannot help a client whom I think is deserving of help. Once, I had a client who was otherwise eligible to self-petition for VAWA—the abuse she lived through sent me home at night profoundly disturbed—except for that she once falsely claimed (to the federally-funded non-profit legal service provider that assisted her to file for an order of protection) that she was a U.S. citizen. She felt terrible that she had lied—even though she did so in a desperate attempt to protect herself—and her conscience led her to admit the falsehood to the agency shortly thereafter. But she had still made a false claim to U.S. citizenship in order to obtain a benefit, and that made her ineligible; I had to tell her I could not file her application for permanent residency.
On another occasion, a missionary from Latin America, who got her green card through her U.S. citizen husband, had registered to vote when she applied for her driver’s license; she didn’t understand English well enough at the time to realize that the form she signed to do so included a statement that she was a U.S. citizen, and she presumed that since the governmental official asked her if she wanted to register to vote, she was eligible. By doing so, though, she committed a deportable offense. I had to advise her against applying for naturalization, because she would be forced to answer a question about falsely claiming to be a citizen, and since I could not encourage her to lie, an honest answer would have rendered her deportable (that particular law does not take into account why you lied, or whether it was intentional).
The reality is that our inflexible laws—which in many cases do not give an adjudicator the discretion to consider the full circumstances—invite fraud. Many of us, under the right circumstances, would tell a small lie if we felt it was the only way to care for someone we loved (if we’re honest, most of us tell small lies for much less noble reasons). Abraham, the father of our faith, committed immigration fraud by misrepresenting his relationship to his wife at a border crossing, desperate to find food in Egypt in the midst of a famine (Genesis 12:10-20). As a more contemporary example, revered author C.S. Lewis initially married his wife, Joy Davidman, in a civil ceremony merely so that she (an American) could stay lawfully in the United Kingdom (that’s what U.S. immigration officials consider marriage fraud).
I don’t share these examples to justify fraud, but rather to underscore the importance that our laws be written in such a way that allows adjudicators and judges to utilize discretion, considering the totality of the circumstances, rather than drafting one-size-fits-all laws that invite falsehoods. In the case of the Violence Against Women Act, there has been no credible evidence of widespread fraud presented in the first place. According to Eleanor Pelta, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “Allegations of widespread fraud in VAWA programs are wholly unfounded… For every isolated incident of fraud, VAWA has saved thousands of lives by protecting victims. Moreover, [Department of Homeland Security] officials already screen cases with a high level of scrutiny. Adding more interviews or evidentiary checks goes far beyond what we require in any other area of law.”
The House-passed version of VAWA still needs to be reconciled with a version passed by the Senate, which left intact the immigration-related provisions of the bill, before it can become law. I’d encourage you to please contact your Representative and Senators to ask them to ensure that the final bill include the Senate’s immigration-related provisions.
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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