The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) waits in limbo for reauthorization in Congress. While legislators discuss content, thousands of women are suffering the physical and mental consequences of abuse, and abusers go on with impunity.
Among those women, uncounted undocumented Latinas continue to be unaware of their right to be protected by the law. They aren’t likely to report domestic violence incidents out of fear of being deported, of seeing their families split and of enraging their partners making violence even worse.
President Bill Clinton first signed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 with bipartisan support. The act has been reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 thanks to bipartisan endeavors until it expired last year. However, this year Republicans proposed significant changes to the Act that will very likely weaken protection for the victims.
Legislators currently discuss two versions of the Act. In April, the Senate passed an Act that increases the number of U visas. This version adds provisions to offer visas to undocumented victims of domestic abuse, extends protection to victims in the gay community and grants more authority for American Indian victims to denounce and go after non-Indian perpetrators.
However, more recently, and arguing that undocumented aliens are using the current law fraudulently, the House passed their own version that allows the immigration officials to interview the accused abuser. Domestic violence specialists believe that calling the abuser to the courts might alert and prompt him to impose harsher chastisement on their victims.
This House version doesn’t include protections for LGBT victims and limits the number of temporary visas offered to those women who agree to testify, which would probably discourage reporting.
The FBI has reported that a woman is physically abused by her partner every nine seconds in the United States.
However, the number must be considerably higher. Domestic violence cases go unreported among the general population but more so and for many reasons among undocumented Hispanics.
Immigrant women living under the radar fear not only their men. They have to face the language barrier, the lack of awareness of the law, the lack of resources, and more importantly, religious and cultural beliefs that make women pledge allegiance to their mates and make immense sacrifice to keep families intact.
Abusers are controllers. They typically isolate their victims, have power over them financially, and systematically crush their spirit to the point that victims come to believe they deserve being abused.
Women whose immigration status has not yet been established are controlled and manipulated by their batterers to keep them in the abusive relationship.
Emotional and verbal abuse will not even be the matter of enforcement. And police won’t get involved in cases of domestic violence if there are no bodily injuries or death threats.
Protected under the law
Non-profit organizations that shelter women in danger are not always aware that they are explicitly exempt from verifying immigration status as a condition for providing services and may deny services to the victims. However, Attorney General’s order states that services “necessary for the protection of life and safety” be provided without regard to immigration status.
On the other hand, many shelters offer human trafficking and immigration services that may include helping the victim get a U visa. The purpose of the U visa is to give victims of certain crimes temporary legal status and work eligibility in the United States for up to four years.
Is the progress brought by VAWA compromised?
Since VAWA’s implementation, local, state and national laws have started to change. Programs, business and communities have started to respond to victim’s needs in a more efficient way. Studies show that rates of violence and reporting of crime are going up.
Moreover, thanks to increased awareness brought on by the issue of domestic violence, more than 660 state laws have passed to combat abuse including, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Also, a larger number of victims are reporting violence.
“Domestic violence can happen to anyone, anywhere and our laws should reflect that,” said Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL), a key co-sponsor of the last VAWA reauthorization in 2005. “We cannot allow VAWA to fall victim to partisan gridlock. House and Senate leaders should act now to resolve their differences and send the President a strong bill that provides life-saving services for victims of abuse, assault and rape.”
Programs and services provided or funded by VAWA would be at risk if the law is not reauthorized. Among them, community violence prevention programs; protection for victims who have been evicted from their homes due to domestic violence incidents; funding for rape crisis centers and hotlines; programs supporting immigrant women, women with disabilities and women from other ethnicities and legal aid for survivors.