Today the Senate will debate reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). After working for months to urge members of Congress to put forward a bill that expands protections for victims of violence, I am disappointed to be left with two bad choices: a weak reauthorization bill that contains harmful anti-immigrant provisions, and an even worse “alternative” Republican bill.
At this point in the legislative process, our best option is to support what remains of S. 1925, the bipartisan VAWA Reauthorization bill, and demand that senators amend the legislation to take out anti-immigrant provisions that are irrelevant to VAWA’s intent and purpose of protecting victims.
Since the fall of 2011, Senate Democrats have worked to draft legislation that is responsive to some of the needs of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking. They carefully chose provisions that they believed could be bipartisan, and avoided provisions that could have helped thousands of victims facing deportation due to increased enforcement and state initiatives such as Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law. They hoped to avoid the legislative discord that usually erupts when Congress debates our country’s overzealous deportation policies.
In the process of trying to obtain more co-sponsors, however, Senate Democrats sacrificed too much. The version of S.1925 that comes to the floor today has only a very few discreet provisions to protect noncitizen victims.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans transformed VAWA into a vehicle for pushing anti-immigrant legislation. All judiciary committee members, Democrats and Republicans alike, voted unanimously in favor of a harmful amendment introduced in January by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
Senate Democrats now are unable or unwilling to strip that harmful amendment out of the bipartisan S. 1925 VAWA bill because they fear that eliminating it will force them to compromise the few remaining provisions that protect immigrants These include measures expanding protections to children of immigrant victims who cooperate with law enforcement and recapturing a limited number of unused U visas from previous years.
Despite S. 1925’s weaknesses, a new alternative bill introduced by a handful of Senate Republicans is worse. Senators Grassley and Hutchison (R-TX) introduced their VAWA “substitute,” S. 2338, this week. This bill adds unnecessary requirements for immigrant victims to obtain protections and discourages victims from reporting crimes and cooperating with law enforcement. For example, under this proposal, immigrant victims of violence will only be eligible for protections if they are able to identify the perpetrator and if that perpetrator is convicted.
Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center serves hundreds of immigrant victims and their families each year. VAWA provides life saving protections to these families and to our communities. It is our responsibility, as their lawyers and advocates, to ensure that immigrant victims and other vulnerable populations are not forgotten in VAWA’s reauthorization. We support S. 1925, but at the same time call on Congress to reject using VAWA as a vehicle to pass anti-immigrant legislation. Since 1994, VAWA has passed with unanimous support in the Senate. Sadly, ensuring protections for victims is not the priority this time around.
Mony Ruiz-Velasco is director of legal services at Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center.