Immigration Options Continue With Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act

On February 28th, 2013, 18 months after the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Congress finally voted to reauthorize the bill.  VAWA was a landmark bill enacted in 1994 to protect victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking by funding state and local agencies to assist victims.  Congress also recognized that the non-citizen status of immigrant victims of crimes and human trafficking left these victims particularly vulnerable because they are often afraid to seek protection from law enforcement, so VAWA provided specific protections for non-citizen victims.

VAWA was not controversial when it was enacted in 1994, nor when it was reauthorized in 2000 and again in 2005.  This time around was different due in large part to Republican opposition to protections for immigrant, Native American, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims of abuse.

Last Congress, the Senate passed a bipartisan reauthorization; however, the House failed to act.  In January this year, when the current Congress began, the Senate again passed VAWA.  The House attempted to introduce a substitute bill that did not include certain protections for immigrants, Native American, and gay, bisexual or transgender victims.  When the substitute failed to pass, the House finally passed the bill reauthorizing VAWA without the substitute bill’s changes.  The new VAWA includes protections for the LGBT community for the very first time and recognizes this as an underrepresented population.

While the reauthorization of VAWA does not create any new remedies for immigrant victims of crimes and human trafficking, immigrant advocates view the reauthorization as a victory, particularly because of some of the improvements made to the act.  Some of these improvements include the following:

  • Adding the crime of “stalking” to the list of qualifying crimes for U nonimmigrant status;
  • Extending protections under the 2009 widow law to include surviving minor children of VAWA self-petitioners when the abusive spouse of the self-petitioner died after filing the petition;
  • Protecting a child of an applicant for U nonimmigrant status from “aging-out” of eligibility if the child turns 21 after filing the petition but before approval of the petition;
  • Allowing abused conditional residents who were spouses of U.S. citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents to apply for a hardship waiver even if the marriage was void because the U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident committed bigamy, if the spouse was unaware of this;  and,
  • Applying the Prison Rape Elimination Act to all immigration detention facilities.

The reauthorization reminds us that no one should be denied access to protection and we should continue to strive to extend those protections to underprotected populations including the LGBT and immigrant communities.  Protecting the vulnerable should never be controversial.  VAWA protects all victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking, regardless of sex, age, race, sexual orientation or immigration status.  Next time, let’s hope it does not take 18 months to realize these protections are necessary and deserved.

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