Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Survivors Can’t Afford to Wait

Domestic Violence Awareness Month has ended, but our work to end abuse continues. Today, in this country, women and children continue to suffer from unspeakable violence because they are afraid to seek help without legal status. When immigrant survivors of abuse without legal status are, according to one study, half as likely to call the police to seek the help they need, we must act.

Since it was first signed into law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA has recognized the need for special protections for immigrant survivors of abuse, including self-petitions and categories of visas for victims of violent crimes and human trafficking. But while VAWA includes key provisions to help immigrant survivors, it is not enough.

Now, Congress has the opportunity to take an important step towards protecting victims, and supporting law enforcement to create safer communities for all Americans. Commonsense immigration reform would significantly benefit immigrant women all over the country. The Senate has already passed an immigration reform bill by a wide, bipartisan majority. And Democratic leaders have introduced a bill in the House that’s similar to the bipartisan Senate bill.  So it’s up to Republicans in the House to decide whether to move forward with immigration reform. Unlike many other issues in Washington, immigration reform is one that both parties can agree on. Congress must finish the job on commonsense immigration reform

Domestic Violence Awareness Month has come to a close, but I want to make sure immigrant survivors are not forgotten by shedding light on the important ways in which sensible immigration reform that has already passed the Senate will protect victims and hold abusers accountable:

  • Reduce the climate of fear and encourages all victims of domestic violence to seek out law enforcement:  Immigrant victims of domestic violence - whether documented or undocumented - are less likely to report crimes or seek police assistance because they fear that they or their relatives could be deported. By creating a path to earned citizenship and bringing immigrant victims out of the shadows, immigration reform eliminates dangerous vulnerabilities that lead to abuse and exploitation.
  • Prevent immigrant victims from choosing between homelessness or staying with an abuser: Too many immigrant victims face the impossible choice between becoming homeless or staying with an abusive partner. The Senate immigration bill would close a loophole in housing legislation to ensure that immigrant survivors who are eligible for VAWA self-petitions have access to public and assisted housing programs.
  • Stop abusers from using partners’ immigration status as a tool of control: It is common for an abuser to use his partner’s immigration status to force her to remain in a dangerous relationship. The Senate immigration bill allows abused spouses and children of Registered Provisional Immigrants to maintain their own status independent from an abusive spouse or parent in cases of domestic violence, even if the legal relationship between the abuser and victim has ended.
  • Help immigrant victims achieve the economic independence needed to escape abuse: Many victims are economically dependent on partners with legal work status, remaining in abusive relationships because they cannot be eligible for work on their own. The bipartisan Senate bill enables survivors to work by granting work permits to those with pending applications for many VAWA self-petitions, U visas or T visas (the visa categories for victims of violent crimes and human trafficking respectively).

Every day, in this nation of immigrants, there are still too many women in this country who live in fear of violence and there are still too many victims we mourn. We cannot fully address domestic violence in this country if all victims are not safe and all abusers are not held accountable. The House can and must take action soon. 

Lynn Rosenthal is the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women

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