Every day the news is replete with stories showing the immigration system is badly broken. Amid the dysfunction -- the approximately 12 million unauthorized aliens living in the shadows; the scores of American families torn apart by deportation; and the inability of American businesses to bring in workers to fill shortage occupations -- there are a few bright spots within the immigration system that actually work. One is the Violence Against Women Act enacted by Congress seventeen years ago, in a bipartisan effort to protect victims of domestic violence, stalking, sex crimes, and human trafficking.
VAWA stands as a shining example of what Congress can do when it leaves politics at the door of the Capitol building, rolls up its collective sleeves, and gets to work for the good of the American people. While not perfect, VAWA is among the few provisions of the immigration law that all Americans can be proud of because it keeps American families safe, secure and together, and honors America's commitment to stand as a beacon of hope and freedom to deserving immigrants in need of shelter.
But now VAWA is in danger. It has become the latest victim of the vicious partisanship that plagues Washington.
It started a couple of weeks ago when the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), put VAWA front and center in what can only be described as an attack on battered immigrants and victims of violence. The Judiciary Committee, discarding nearly 20 years of bi-partisan commitment to VAWA, reported out H.R. 4970 with ugly provisions that would roll back the law's steadfast commitment to the protection of women, children, and elderly victims of crimes. Even with amendments to the House bill that the sponsors filed, the bill will unnecessarily curtail important protections for battered immigrants.
Most egregious is the requirement that immigration officers consider any and all evidence provided by the abuser, even if it is uncorroborated and the only source of negative information. Abusers frequently use the immigration process as a tool of abuse, threatening to report them to immigration authorities and refusing to help their spouses apply for lawful status. VAWA removes that tool, allowing victims of domestic violence to apply for lawful status on their own. Taking into account an abuser's side of the story is unworkable -- after all, what abuser is going to provide useful, credible information when he has already done all that he can to prevent his victim from obtaining the legal status for which she is eligible.
And that's not all. There are other amendments which do heavy damage to VAWA's protections for victims, including one that closes off the opportunity for victims to apply for green cards -- subjecting them to deportation for reporting a crime, and makes it harder for victims of domestic violence and other crimes to qualify for protective visas. In order to qualify for a U visa, law enforcement must sign off certifying the victim's helpfulness. Under H.R. 4970, only victims who obtain these certifications while the investigation or prosecution is on-going would qualify, leaving many victims vulnerable to further abuse and violence.
Take Julia -- a victim of repeated physical and sexual violence during her marriage. Her husband, Raul, repeatedly raped, punched, and strangled Julia during drunken rages. After a particularly serious attack, Julia found the courage to call the police. The police arrested Raul and, with Julia's help, Raul pled guilty and was deported to his home country -- Julia's home country also. It was not until after his conviction that Julia learned about U visas. Today, she and her children are protected from deportation. If H.R. 4970 passed, Julia would have been ineligible for a U-visa because the prosecution already occurred, and she would be facing deportation back to her abuser.
Last night, as the VAWA bill was considered and passed by the full House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and the Republican leadership squandered a golden opportunity to show much needed leadership by rejecting this ugly legislation designed to do nothing more than hurt defenseless victims of domestic violence, stalking, sex crimes, and human trafficking. The Speaker, who hails from the politically critical swing state of Ohio, should have seized upon this rare opportunity to show the nation (and his state) what he and the GOP are really made of. Sadly, Boehner and the Republican House leadership turned their backs on America's families and collaborated to pass the VAWA bill in what has now become an ugly war against immigrant women and other victims of violent crime.
But amid the cowardice and betrayal that infected the House floor were 23 shining lights -- the Republicans who had the guts to defy their misguided leadership and vote to reject the bill. Knowing they will face serious political heat for doing the right thing, these members of Congress demonstrated something Speaker Boehner and his political lieutenants did not -- a steadfast commitment to women, children and all victims of violence.