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Rolling Back Protections for Domestic Violence Victims

House Republicans passed a measure that guts nearly 18 years of established law and undermines the very foundation of the Violence Against Women Act.

Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of posts on the importance of strengthening the Violence Against Women Act.  Additional posts will follow on addressing violence against Native women and LGBT victims.

Since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been an essential tool in helping to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence.  While seeking to improve criminal justice and community-based responses to victims of abuse, VAWA ultimately changed the landscape for those previously left to suffer in silence.    

Since then, Congress – on a bipartisan basis -- has repeatedly shown its commitment to preserving and enhancing the core goals of VAWA by increasing protections in all subsequent VAWA reauthorizations. This was recently demonstrated by the Senate’s VAWA reauthorization bill (S. 1925) introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) that passed last month on a vote of 68 to 31, with strong bipartisan support. S. 1925 was introduced after months of input from a wide range of stakeholders. Unfortunately, Republican leaders in the House have taken a different approach, with the introduction of H.R. 4970, a bill authored by Rep. Sandy Adams (FL-24), that actually rolls back protections for victims of domestic violence. On Tuesday, on a vote of 17-15, House Republicans passed this measure out of the House Judiciary Committee, without properly considering the cross-jurisdictional sections that provide for protections on tribal lands, in federal housing programs, and on college campuses around the country. 

The Adams bill adds burdensome, counter-productive requirements that compromise the ability of service providers to reach victims, fails to adequately protect Tribal victims, lacks important protection and services for LGBT victims, weakens resources for victims living in subsidized housing, and eliminates important improvements to address dating violence and sexual assault on college campuses.  Among the most troubling components of this bill are those that jettison and drastically undercut existing and important, long-standing protections that remain vital to the safety and protection of battered immigrant victims.  

Since its inception, VAWA has reflected the unique circumstances that immigrant victims face, and as such, has demonstrated a commitment to offering them protection and addressing the specific issues that endanger the lives of these particularly vulnerable victims. This commitment includes addressing the problems faced by immigrants married to or in relationships with abusive citizens or legal residents.  In many of these relationships, abusive partners use immigration status as a tool to control and further abuse immigrant victims.  Currently, VAWA addresses this by allowing battered immigrants to petition for their own immigration status—independent of their abusive spouses – freeing them from their spouse’s abuse and control. 

The Adams bill takes a significant step backwards from the existing law by allowing immigration officials to interview an alleged offender and consider the information obtained in making a determination about the adjudication of a battered immigrant’s petition for status. This not only undermines the critical protection of confidentiality relied on by victims to find safety for themselves and their children, it also allows abusers to manipulate the immigration process to cause further harm.  Because the risks of serious injury and homicide increase when a victim is taking steps to leave an abusive relationship, this provision puts victims directly in harm’s way. This proposal guts nearly 18 years of established law and undermines the very foundation of VAWA.  Never before have policy makers retreated on the core VAWA principle of victim safety. 

The bill also discourages immigrants from reporting sexual assault and other crimes by placing other unnecessary restrictions on the U visa program and fails to provide an increase in the number of available visas.  The U visa is a tool widely used and supported by law enforcement officials in order to help keep our communities safe by prosecuting criminals.  Many law enforcement agencies have called upon Congress to increase the number of available U visas so that they can encourage victims to come forward, report crimes, and receive the help they need to be safe.   

Finally, the Adams bill will decentralize the VAWA immigration adjudications process – bypassing examiners who are specifically trained in domestic violence and sexual assault – and mandates additional interviews for battered immigrants, causing unnecessary burdens on victims.  Immigrant victims often have limited options to escape abusive relationships and the provisions in the Adams bill contradict the very purpose of VAWA by putting victims’ lives, health, and safety at risk. 

 Our nation’s laws should continue to strengthen protections for our most vulnerable populations – not roll back those safeguards.  The long standing bipartisan commitment to ending domestic violence must continue to be supported and strengthened to better protect all victims from violence, abuse, and exploitation.  We urge the House of Representatives to join with the Senate in passing a bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill that protects all victims.