NIJC Affirms VAWA’s Power to Save Lives

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NIJC logoThis blog gives me the opportunity not only to share my voice, but also to lift up the voices of others standing for welcome at LIRS and throughout the nation.  Today I’d like to introduce an interview by Luke Telander, Program Associate for Outreach at LIRS. He speaks with Mony Ruiz-Velasco, Director of Legal Services at the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC).

Update: Monday is an important day, as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)  may come to a vote in the Senate. It’s important to keep watch on how the legislation that emerges treats immigrants.  Don’t forget, too, that your voice can make a difference. You can show your support for a just reauthorization of VAWA here.

In that context, it’s particularly exciting to present today’s interview, which testifies to how VAWA’s important protections for victims save lives. This is not surprising, as VAWA is one of the landmark legislative achievements of the last 20 years.  When it was first passed in 1994, the act brought much-needed protections for victims of rape and domestic abuse, and over the years it has continued to evolve in its protection of women, including allowing undocumented women the ability to “self-petition” for legal status.  With the creation of the U visa through the TVPA (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) of 2000, survivors of abuse who cooperate with the police are able to gain legal status, thus furthering public safety and trust in local law enforcement.  This is a vital protection, as many abusers use their victims’ documentation status to keep them in fear of speaking out.

In 2012, the Senate passed a reauthorization bill of VAWA that included several progressive items, including a badly needed increase in U Visas, but it was not taken up in the Republican-controlled House.  Last week, however, the Senate agreed in a lopsided vote to reconsider the bill, and is expected to pass it soon.  Whether the new House will reconsider their opposition to the bill and whether or not harmful amendments will be added remains to be seen.

Mony Ruiz-Velasco, as the Director of Legal Services at NIJC, has incredible insight into the power of and need for a reauthorization of VAWA that is compassionate towards immigrant women. Here are her thoughts, shared via an email interview:

Luke Telander (LT): Was there a pivotal moment in your life that led you to work in the immigrant rights field?

Mony Ruiz-Velasco (MR): My commitment to equality and women’s rights and my background as the child of immigrants led me to work in the field of immigrant rights.  It started when I was a young child, seeing inequality in the lives of women in my family. As I grew up, I observed inequality in the lives of women all around me. Part of my life, I grew up in Mexico, I saw women without access to education, financial means and independence. Although many women in my family went to college, they had a set trajectory, even in my middle class up-bringing: school, college, marriage and children.  In my life in the U.S., I saw very few women in positions of power, in particular, women of color. I was determined to work to help change those trajectories. In law school, I had the privilege of working with immigrant domestic violence survivors and I immediately realized this was my life’s work.

LT: As the Director of Legal Services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, how have you seen VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) make a difference in the lives of immigrant women?

MR: I have worked with immigrant survivors of violence for more than fifteen years. I have seen first-hand how the important protections afforded to victims in the Violence Against Women Act save lives.  I have worked with hundreds of victims over the years and have witnessed victims moving from a place of fear and uncertainty to stability and independence. The NIJC and its pro bono attorneys serve hundreds of victims, many who are women, each year by providing direct immigration legal representation and counsel to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other violent crimes.  Protections afforded to domestic violence survivors under the VAWA allow victims to obtain immigration legal status without relying on their abusers.

In addition, over two and half years, I have had the privilege of being part of the immigration committee of the National Taskforce to End Domestic Violence to advocate for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.  In this capacity, I have worked alongside a group of strong and amazing advocates to inform Congress and the public about the importance of the existing protections in VAWA and to recommend improvements to the law.

LT: Can you describe the U Visa program in brief? 

MR: The U visa was created by Congress in 2000 as part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The U visa is a law enforcement tool that allows victims of certain crimes to apply for temporary status that could lead to permanent resident status if the victim cooperates in the investigation or prosecution of a crime. To apply for a U visa, law enforcement must provide written certification of the victim’s willingness to cooperate in an investigation or prosecution.  The U visa is an important tool for law enforcement as it encourages victim cooperation in the investigation or prosecution of crimes. Immigrant victims of crime are at times afraid to report crimes due to fear of retribution by the perpetrator or fear of immigration authorities, and the U visa provides an important incentive to speak out. The U visa makes our communities safer.

LT: This past year, the U visa cap, which would be raised under the Senate reauthorization bill, was reached with almost a month left in the fiscal year.  Is there a worry among those who would qualify that even if they comply with VAWA stipulations, there might not be enough visas to go around?

MR: Congress allocated 10,000 U visas each year.  For the past three years, the cap has been met before the end of the fiscal year; thus leaving applicants for U visas in limbo as they wait until the new fiscal year for access to a visa.  In 2012, Congress considered temporarily increasing the cap. The proposal was strongly supported by law enforcement, victims’ advocates, and other relevant stakeholders. Unfortunately, this provision failed along with the reauthorization of VAWA in 2012.

At this time, the Department of Homeland Security has implemented a discretionary measure to grant deferred action to certain eligible U visa applicants in the event the cap is reached.  Although this measure is helpful in the short term, this is not a good long-term solution as it leaves families vulnerable.

LT: What is the biggest roadblock existing to the reauthorization of VAWA in 2013 with the added protections for undocumented immigrants?

MR: There are no added protections for immigrant victims in the current pending version of VAWA. There are some technical and important modifications that will ensure that already eligible victims are not left without protection. All of the provisions included in the 2013 version of VAWA passed the House and the Senate in 2012. We do not believe the provisions included in S. 47 will be controversial. However, Senators will have an opportunity to introduce amendments to VAWA and depending on what is introduced, those amendments could create roadblocks to passing VAWA. We strongly encourage and hope that Congress will not use VAWA to introduce harmful amendments that are irrelevant to the intent and purpose of VAWA.

LT: Do you think that VAWA reauthorization could gain momentum from the quickly developing comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) efforts?

MR: I think members of Congress recognized the serious implications of their failure to pass to VAWA in 2012 and made it a priority in 2013.  Given that the U visa recapture provision was left out of this version of VAWA for procedural reasons, we hope CIR will include an increase in U visas and other meaningful protections for victims of gender-based violence and persecution.

 LT: What is the number one reason anyone who supports immigrant rights should be a strong proponent of VAWA reauthorization?

MR: Abusers use their victims’ lack of immigration status as a tool for abuse and control. A high percentage of women report that their abusive spouses never filed immigration petitions on their behalf to help them obtain legal status. Research has shown that without legal status, women are half as likely to report abuse. Supporting access to protections for immigrant victims of violence fits within the priorities of immigrant rights advocates.

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