Battle over VAWA Continues

The U.S. Congress remains deadlocked over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which provides immigration relief to victims of domestic violence, as the battle continues over reconciling two conflicting versions of bills passed by the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) includes provisions to assist foreign nationals who have been victims of domestic abuse. These provisions, initially enacted by Congress with the Immigration Act of 1990 and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, afford benefits to abused foreign nationals and allow them to self-petition for lawful permanent resident status (green-card) independently of their U.S. citizen or green-card holder relatives who originally sponsored them. Congress reauthorized VAWA with the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 2000, which also created the U visa for foreign national victims of a range of crimes – including domestic abuse – who assisted law enforcement. A second reauthorization in 2005 added protections and expanded eligibility for abused foreign nationals.

VAWA expired in 2011. On November 30, 2011, Senator Leahy introduced S1925, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011. In May of 2012, the Senate passed the S1925, which expanded several protections for immigrant women and children, including:

  • Allows for up to 5,000 additional U visas annually.
  • Adds “stalking” to the list of criminal activities covered by U visas for victims.
  • Provides protections for minor children of self-petitioners who die before the petition is completed.
  • Provides that VAWA self-petitioners and applicants for T and U visas cannot be barred from admission on grounds they are a public charge.
  • Provides that children of the applicants of U visas will be covered on their parent’s application for a visa if they turn 21 before the application process is complete.
  • Adds protections for fiancées or fiancés on K visas from potentially abusive marriages.
  • Requires annual reports to be submitted on the outcomes of VAWA immigration cases.
  • On a negative side, the Senate bill also includes a provision added by Senator Grassley (R-IA) that makes a third drunk driving (DUI) conviction an “aggravated felony,” meaning the immigrant is subject to mandatory deportation and denial of any benefits.

On May 16, 2012, the House passed its own version of VAWA reauthorization bill, HR4970, introduced by Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL). Unlike the Senate version, the House bill has been criticized for not only failing to expand important protections, but also taking away the VAWA protections for immigrants that have existed for decades. The White House has publicly opposed the Adams bill, saying in a statement: “H.R. 4970 also takes direct aim at immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault by removing critical protections currently in law. H.R. 4970 allows abusers to be notified when a victim files a VAWA self-petition for relief, and it eliminates the path to citizenship for U visa holders – victims of serious crimes such as torture, rape, and domestic violence – who are cooperating with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of these crimes. These proposals senselessly remove existing legal protections, undermine VAWA’s core purpose of protecting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, frustrate important law enforcement objectives, and jeopardize victims by placing them directly in harm’s way.”

Immigrants’ rights organizations summarized the most controversial provisions of the House bill as follows:

  • HR4970 makes U Visas temporary. Under the House bill, U Visas would only be valid for four years, after which the victim would have to leave the U.S. or risk deportation. Domestic violence experts agree that this would discourage victims from coming forward to report crimes. While their cooperation with the police could end their dependency on an abusive spouse, their legal status would be temporary – meaning they eventually would be forced to leave their jobs, homes, and children and return to their home countries.
  • HR4970 takes adjudication of T and U Visas out of the hands of experts. Currently, a centralized VAWA unit at the DHS Vermont Service Center adjudicates all T and U Visa applications. This is consistent with law enforcement practices across the country, where specially trained experts protect victims and hold perpetrators accountable. The House bill would delegate these responsibilities to local DHS offices who do not have such expertise and may be less likely to accurately determine the credibility of victims and abusers.
  • HR4970 allows DHS adjudicators to interview the abusers, obtain evidence from abusers, and inform abusers about the victims’ cases. The House bill would eviscerate the confidentiality protections of VAWA and give the abusers additional power over their victims. It would discourage victim cooperation with law enforcement.
  • HR4970 links adjudication of visas to the status of the domestic violence investigation or prosecution. There are many reasons why a case may never be fully investigated or prosecuted which have nothing to do with the merits of the victim’s case. Under the House bill, victims would be denied a visa because of a process that is out of their control.

Proponents of the House bill suggest that VAWA provides opportunities for dishonest immigrants to circumvent U.S. immigration laws, and argue that the proposed provisions would help prevent fraudulent application for relief. However, there is no convincing empirical support for these assertions. AILA President Eleanor Pelta said: “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, DHS 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.”

Technically, current stalemate over the VAWA bill is procedural. However, there is also a political problem illustrated by the contrasting bills passed by the majority-Democratic Senate and the majority-Republican House. In order to become law, the bill must pass both houses and be signed by the President. In the meantime, abused immigrant spouses or children of U.S. citizens or green-card holders can still file VAWA-based self-petitions. However, the immigration process under VAWA may change in the near future depending on the terms of VAWA eventual reauthorization.

Attorneys at I.S. Law Firm have helped many individuals to adjust their status in the United States and obtain green-cards. To explore your immigration options, please contact us at +1-703-527-1779 or via e-mail: [email protected].