Law in Contemporary Society

The Violence Against (Some) Women Act

Creating Options

Marianna was only 33, but years of abuse made her look much older. I sat and listened to her story, stopping to ask her questions in broken Spanish to fill out her U-visa application. Every so often, she would turn and shush her sons - a pair of adorable 4-year-old twins - telling them to settle down and share the tiny toy car and highlighters that were supposed to keep them occupied. The boys played at the end of the table, out of earshot of their mother reliving her physical, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse.

She called him "esposo" even though they had never married. He degraded her and said he would never marry her because his girlfriend was prettier. He lorded his green card over her to coerce sex, housework, children, and money -always threatening to leave her or have her deported. For 8 years Marianna just dealt with it, eventually giving birth to her twins in the US.

The final straw came when a friend saw her bruises, encouraged her to call the police, and helped Marianna escape to a local shelter. By helping the police prosecute her abuser she could apply for a U-visa. Getting the visa would authorize her to work legally and could eventually translate into permanent residency with her two boys. She was a skilled seamstress, and she could probably get a job earning enough money to stop collecting cans. The lawyers at the shelter would help her contact the prosecutor's office and get them to certify that she was cooperating. Her application would show that she was a hard-working mom who had stayed out of trouble, aside from staying in the country too long.

Upending the System

The U-visa system is in danger of being gutted by the recently passed House version of the Violence Against Women Act (HB 4970). Instead of increasing the number of U-visas, as in the Senate version, the House version would throw up roadblocks to make survivors like Marianna even less likely to report their abusers.

One of the most severe changes would remove the capability for U-visa holders to transition to lawful permanent of increasing social good by prosecuting abusers and allowing mothers to stay with and care for their children, HB 4970 only increases the incentives for undocumented women to stay with their abusers or stay off the immigration radar by not reporting.

Even more troublesome are the changes to the U-visa application process itself. HB 4970 adds an in-person interview and investigation to the process. Prosecutors must still independently certify cooperation. But the petitioning alien is subjected to a trial of her own. Under HB 4970, she would have to report to the local immigration office for an in-person interview, where an officer is allowed to gather evidence unrelated to the domestic violence petition. Any evidence of past petitions for legal immigration status is allowed. The accused partner is also invited to present evidence about the petitioning victim. In cases like Marianna's, where the abuser is a green card holder, threats of deportation become much more real. The motivations behind these new provisions seem obvious, given that an immigration judge presides over all U-visa petitions anyway. By requiring victims to expose their lives to immigration officers, with no guarantee that the information discovered will not be used to deport them, HB 4970 tacitly encourages immigrant women to stay silent and suffer through abuse.

It should not be surprising that the current House is against more immigration. What is surprising is the context. Immigration policy involves a balancing of interests. But in this instance, the changes to the U-visa system show much more weight is being given to the appearance of a hardline on immigration than any idea of public good. No one wants to encourage immigration fraud. But if the U-visa system becomes so onerous, immigrant women will become even more vulnerable to abuse. Fears of deportation and inequalities in legal status already fuel many instances of domestic violence. HB 4970 turns the purpose of the Violence Against Women Act on its head and serves more abusers than it does victims.

This draft is a definite improvement over the last draft, because it doesn't depend on assigning emotional states to people you disagree with on policy. The introduction retains its realism, which is very desirable. There are two remaining problems that should be considered.

First, the policy part of your essay lacks the realism you attain with Marianna's story. The House of Representatives is merely the bat-shit crazy antechamber to legislative activity in the US at present. In this, as in so many other areas, the question is solely what the White House will sign and what the Senate will pass. The House vote is simply an easy way for members of the majority to send messages home without actually doing something. Like voting 33 times to repeal the ACA, it's just sound and fury signifying nothing. Writing about it as though reasoned policy analysis had anything to do with it is unrealistic in the extreme.

The parties elected to go into these elections at loggerheads on all immigration and also on all "feminist" issues. It suits the Democratic campaign to run against the Republicans' "war on women" and "anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant" bigotry. It suits the Republicans to hold high the banner of White, Christian America. Nobody gives a crap about VAWA reauthorization except "the groups," so if it dies in the crossfire that doesn't matter very much. If the Democrats do well in November, they can press it through next Congress, and if the Republicans win, it's dead forever anyway.

So whatever your essay is about in the end, it isn't that. Is it why U-visas are important? If so, why are they? Should undocumented immigrants who are the victims of crime be given working papers and an expedited chance at permanent residency as compensation? Should undocumented witnesses who help make certain forms of prosecution be given these benefits as rewards? Is it something about the condition of the domestic violence victim that makes this treatment specially appropriate? The general injustice of immigration controls, on the other hand, doesn't seem more implicated by Marianna's story if U-visas don't exist than so many other forms of immigration-control injustice we witness and hear about all the time. If there should be 10,000 slots for people like her, shouldn't there be tens of thousands of slots for equitable rectification of all those other injustices too? Maybe the real issue isn't the domestic violence at all, but the bizarre arbitrariness and disgracefulness of our immigration system.

Which brings us to the second problem: the relationship between the narrative of Marianna and the analysis that follows. Leaving aside, for the moment, the irrelevance of the particular nonsense created by the House of Representatives, what is the relationship between your personal experience of this client and any policy analysis? Are we being reminded to include her in the calculations? Or to think only of people like her? Or to be angry at anyone who does not think her interests primary? Or to appreciate that this is where you are coming from, the experience that drives your thinking?

(777 words)

-- JacquelineRios - 20 May 2012


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r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:29 - IanSullivan
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