Committee Vote Undermines Violence Against Women Act
May 9, 2012
Renewing the Violence Against Women Act should take us one step closer to becoming a society in which all women are safe from violence in their homes and on the streets. The bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee does the opposite.
Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher

(Washington) –The full US House of Representatives should reject a dangerous version of a bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Human Rights Watch said today. The bill would undermine the law and expose immigrant women and families to abuse, Human Rights Watch said. The House Judiciary Committee on May 8, 2012 approved a version that makes multiple changes to VAWA’s existing provisions addressing immigrant victims of domestic and sexual violence.

“Renewing the Violence Against Women Act should take us one step closer to becoming a society in which all women are safe from violence in their homes and on the streets,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee does the opposite. It rejects progress and rolls back protections that have been proven effective in helping women escape abuse.”

VAWA is the primary federal law providing legal protection and services to women, men, and children who are victims of domestic and sexual violence and stalking. It supports victims’ services such as rape crisis centers, temporary housing for domestic violence survivors, and programs to address violence against people with disabilities. Since it was first enacted in 1994, VAWA has included protections to address the particular challenges confronting immigrant victims of violence.

Congress has reauthorized VAWA twice and the law is now up for its third renewal.A bipartisan reauthorization bill (S. 1925) passed the Senate 68 to 31.

The version of the reauthorization bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee (H.R. 4970), was introduced by Representative Sandy Adams, Republican of Florida, and has 36 additional sponsors. Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, has introduced an alternative version of the VAWA renewal bill in the House with 75 co-sponsors. Representative Judy Biggert, Republican of Illinois, has proposed a third version, with one co-sponsor.

The Adams bill proposes sweeping changes to existing legal protections for immigrant victims of sexual and domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said. The bill would change the requirements for applications for immigration status for abused immigrant spouses of US citizens and permanent residents. These changes include imposing a stricter standard of proof than required for asylum applications and allowing government adjudicators to break confidentiality and interview an accused abuser about the spouse’s immigration application.

“VAWA has always been about ensuring that all victims of abuse, including immigrant victims, have somewhere to turn in the face of violence,” Rhoad said. “The Adams bill tells battered immigrant women that if they come forward, not only could they eventually be deported, but the government may put their lives at risk by informing their abuser that they are seeking help.”

The Adams bill further erodes protections for immigrant victims of violence by undermining the U visa program, Human Rights Watch said. The U visa is a temporary visa allowing an immigrant victim of a serious crime to stay in the US to assist law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting the crime. The Adams bill provides that crime victims awarded a U visa would no longer be eligible for permanent residency after the temporary visa expires. The prospect of eventual deportation would provide abusers with leverage to keep victims in violent relationships and inhibit victim cooperation with law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.

In contrast, the bill passed by the Senate would maintain current protections for immigrant victims of abuse and make a limited number of additional U visas available. Other provisions from the Senate bill that are missing from the Adams bill would restore Native American tribal courts’ criminal jurisdiction over crimes of domestic violence or dating violence committed on reservations and tribal lands in cases in which the victim is a tribal member but the defendant is not. Currently, those cases fall outside the jurisdiction of both tribal and state courts and are rarely prosecuted by federal authorities.

In addition, the House Judiciary Committee rejected amendments that would explicitly provide protection for LGBT victims of sexual and domestic violence. While such violence affects LGBT victims at approximately the same rate as non-LGBT victims, discrimination can prevent them from accessing social services like domestic violence shelters or legal remedies like orders of protection.

“The Adams bill, with both its striking omissions and retrogressive provisions, constitutes an attack on the principle that protection from violence should be available to everyone,” Rhoad said. “It does a great disservice to VAWA’s 18-year history and a greater injustice to the victims of domestic and sexual violence whom it abandons.”