Blog of Rights

House GOP’s Rewrite of VAWA Does Violence to Immigrants

By Charanya Krishnaswami, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 3:32pm

“[A]buse in the U.S. immigration system must be stopped,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) recently remarked. Ironic, considering that Smith is a co-sponsor of the recently passed H.R. 4970, a so-called “renewal” of the historic Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that actually eviscerates several long-standing protections for survivors of domestic violence—particularly immigrant survivors. 

Immigrants are among the most vulnerable members of our population, and immigrant survivors of domestic violence doubly so. In addition to fearing their aggressors, battered immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, live in constant fear of detection and deportation. They are much less likely to report abuse—even life-threatening abuse—for fear of being shunted into the merciless bureaucracy that is our immigration system.

The original VAWA sought to change this by including an important provision, under which battered immigrants could individually petition for legal permanent residence. This law has literally meant the difference between life and death for immigrant domestic violence survivors. It has marked the difference between getting help and staying hidden. It has given battered immigrants the courage to come forward without fear. It has, in short, prevented violence against women.

The House GOP bill guts this critical protection and puts battered immigrants back in the shadows. It turns the self-petition process into a he-said, she-said—allowing the abuser to file information with immigration authorities opposing the visa grant. It requires victims of domestic violence petitioning for U-visas to help identify their batterers—a requirement totally unheard of elsewhere in domestic violence law. It discourages battered immigrants from reporting abuse by giving them only a temporary reprieve from deportation—meaning that the members of this vulnerable population brave enough to come forward will eventually risk permanent removal from the country. It’s no wonder the White House has called these new visa provisions “senseless.”

Meanwhile, as H.R. 4970 turns the longstanding VAWA visa process into a cruel obstacle course, it drastically lowers the threshold for deportability for certain crimes the government alleges involved domestic violence. Under the Gowdy Amendment (named for Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-SC, who introduced it), immigrants facing even a whisper of an allegation of domestic violence may be deemed deportable—even if the only evidence backing up the allegation is found in a police report or other source of extraneous, uncorroborated evidence untested in a criminal courtroom.

The Gowdy Amendment violates basic tenets of evidence law and criminal procedure, goes against longstanding Supreme Court precedent, and also has the potential to interfere harmfully with the constitutional requirement that immigrants in criminal proceedings receive satisfactory legal advice about pleading guilty. If counsel for immigrant defendants do not even know what sorts of evidence might be used in the future as grounds for deportability, how can they advise their clients what to plead? If the House is so worried about honesty in immigration proceedings, why did it create such an easily manipulable, safeguard-free means for immigrants to be deported?

With H.R. 4970, the House has made it so that if you’re an immigrant claiming abuse, you’ll have to jump over a daunting set of hurdles to receive relief. But if you’re an immigrant who’s been accused of abuse, even an uncorroborated hearsay accusation of domestic violence is enough to kick you out of the country for good. Far from “preventing abuse in the immigration system,” as Rep. Smith suggests, this dangerous legislation actually encourages it.

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