One new provision would force U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to transfer decision making authority from highly-trained personnel to local “investigative” officers. It would also eliminate confidentiality protections by encouraging investigators to contact the very same abusers from whom victims are trying to flee, clearly putting the safety of victims and their children at risk. Further, if a victim fails to establish her case by “clear and convincing evidence,” she would be immediately referred for deportation.
Another new VAWA provision would eliminate the possibility of lawful permanent residence, unless the victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or a similar crime could establish that the criminal had been deported to the victim’s same country of origin based on a conviction for that same crime. For most victims, this removes any safe haven the victim had been promised when initially coming forward to cooperate with law enforcement.
This is a giant step backward for all women, but especially for immigrant women since our experience at Sanctuary for Families shows that some abusers seek out the most vulnerable. That is why VAWA legislation now requires that immigrating spouses and children receive information on American laws against domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, legal obligations regarding child support and that they receive the National Domestic Violence Hotline and National Sexual Assault Hotline phone numbers.
Whereas the VAWA strike against immigrant victims is blatant, the new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Act that was just passed endangers them more subtly. The STEM Act purports to facilitate the immigration of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, but the version of the Act that passed contains a provision added only weeks ago that would remove “V visa” safeguards for family members. The original V visa—available only to those whose green card family members who began the sponsorship process before December 21, 2000—favored family reunification by giving spouses the ability to live and work in the United States while waiting to get to the front of the immigrant visa line. However, now immigrants granted V visas would not be eligible to work, nor be eligible for Social Security Numbers or driver licenses.
This needlessly creates an unprotected class of immigrants invited into the United States without the basic tools of independence. It also instantly erodes years of work that went into developing legislative amendments meant to protect immigrating family members from harm.
It is disheartening that mere months after a presidential election put the focus on women and women’s issues, two Acts threaten women so drastically. While the majority of immigrant women may not need to escape an abuser, nor will numerous immigrating family members need a social services hotline or the ability to make a quick escape, current laws exist to protect these vulnerable immigrants if violence does occur. Are we really willing to take this risk? We must make sure the Senate does not pass the House versions of the STEM Act and VAWA.
Eisner is executive director of Sanctuary for Families and Dinnerstein is co-director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families.