Meghan Rhoad

"He moves things around in the diaper bag," Elsa M. says and her eyes anxiously shift from the child on her lap to the bag by the door. "Even this scares me. I get scared about little things like that because I don't know what his intentions are, after everything he has done to us." She is referring to her husband, the father of her children, and the violent abuser who has filled years of her life with terror. They separated but share child custody, and each time he takes the kids, she is petrified, to the extent that she questions his motives even when he merely shifts the contents of their youngest child's diaper bag.

She describes a recent trip to Wal-Mart where she had the feeling of being watched while walking the aisles. She is almost certain a pick-up truck followed her car out of the parking lot.

In many respects, Elsa's experience mirrors that of millions of American women caught in abusive relationships. The subtle manipulations and outright threats of her abuser echo words by women of varied backgrounds in any number of domestic violence shelters. But Elsa's abuser had an additional tool for trapping her in a cycle of violence. He held the ultimate trump card: he was a U.S. citizen and Elsa, born in Mexico, lacked authorization to live in the U.S.

As the clock winds down on the 112th Congress, the House and Senate are in a standoff over renewing the Violence Against Women Act -- the single most important federal law addressing domestic and sexual violence.

The most intense debate has focused on protections for immigrant victims of violence developed over the law's 18-year history. A bi-partisan bill approved overwhelmingly by the Senate proposes modest adjustments to make the protections against abuse for immigrant women more accessible. A counterproposal passed by the House would undermine existing protections.

Globally, more than 100 million women live outside the country of their birth, more than double the number in 1960. Migrant women face additional barriers to accessing justice for violence committed against them, including lack of awareness about local laws and procedures, language and cultural differences, geographic isolation from authorities and services (for example with migrant farmworkers), fear of retaliation against family members in their home countries, and discrimination by law enforcement authorities. For migrant women who lack authorization to live and work in their country of residence, the possibility of deportation can be manipulated by abusers to trap them in violent relationships and ensure their silence.

"He had total control over me," Elsa says.

When the abuse hit a new high during her last pregnancy and Elsa finally called the police, her husband received a citation and spent one night in jail. Bent on revenge, he made good on his longstanding threat to turn her in to immigration authorities if she reported the domestic violence. Sitting in her sister's apartment in Nogales, Arizona, Elsa and I were no more than a mile from the border with Mexico. She expected to soon face deportation and separation from her four U.S.-born children.

American immigration policy was not crafted with the intention for it to become an enabler of violence against women like Elsa, but there is little doubt that it often serves that function. The government estimates that 11.5 million people currently live in the U.S. without authorization and about 47 percent, or 5.4 million, are women. These women possess the same human rights as anyone else -- in particular the right to freedom from violence, and equality before the law.

For almost two decades, women's rights advocates have pushed policymakers to ensure that women are not forced to choose between being beaten up or being deported. In the landmark Violence Against Women Act of 1994, Congress created a process by which battered spouses of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents could apply for permanent residency without the approval of their abusive spouses. Then in 2000, Congress established two visas that provide a path to permanent residency for migrants who assist in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity: the T-visa for trafficking victims and the U-visa for victims of crime, including domestic violence and sexual assault.

Not every woman who has experienced abuse meets the eligibility criteria. U-visas, which only became available in 2008 after years of delays in developing the regulations, are capped at 10,000 per year though they cover a wide range of crime victims. To be eligible, a victim must have a certification from law enforcement indicating her cooperation with the investigation or prosecution. Further, limited awareness of the mechanism among both victims and law enforcement officers is a problem that, while slowly being addressed, severely undermines the visa's impact.

The VAWA renewal bill approved by the House proposes sweeping changes to the existing legal protections for immigrant victims of sexual and domestic violence. Among other harmful provisions, the bill would change the requirements for applications for immigration relief for abused immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

These changes include allowing government adjudicators to receive information from an accused abuser about the spouse's immigration application. The House bill also undermines the U-visa program, by changing the law to allow only a small subsection of crime victims the opportunity to adjust to permanent residency status after their temporary visa expires. This puts women back in the position of having to choose between enduring abuse or facing deportation.

Elsa's vindictive husband could not so effectively have kept his wife in an abusive relationship without U.S. immigration policy. The good news is that after years of suffering, Elsa was ultimately granted permission to stay in the U.S. through the Violence Against Women Act.

Members of Congress should remember Elsa's case, and not roll back protections for immigrant women.  


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