Friday, March 8, 2013

Violence Against Women Act and Its Impact on Immigrant Women

On February 28, 2013, Congress passed the bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA is the federal law providing legal protection and services to protect women, and some men from domestic and sexual violence. Prior to the enactment of VAWA in 1994, there were no legal protections for domestic violence victims. Women were treated as property of men and courts often mishandled the domestic violence cases. It was not until the 1970s that the United States began to recognize domestic violence as a significant social problem. By the late 1970s, a number of shelters for batter women were built nationwide. Finally, in 1994, under the leadership of Vice President Joseph Biden (at the time a U.S. Senator D-Del.), Congress passed VAWA. Since then, VAWA has been renewed twice without controversy in 2000 and again in 2005. VAWA has made substantial progress in addressing domestic violence issues. It created a shift in the perception of domestic violence in the United States.[1] It has “improved the criminal justice response to violence against women” and has “ensured that victims and their families have access to the services.”[2] Despite the progress 1994 VAWA has made, domestic violence has remained a serious societal problem and many scholars called for stronger protection to target multiple areas in need of improvement.

The renewed bill authorized $659 million over five years for various programs that help prevent domestic violence and extend protections for victims with diverse backgrounds such as gays and lesbians, immigrants and Native American women. The 1994 VAWA expired in October 2011 but Congress failed to reauthorize it due to objections from Republicans over the new provisions in the bill. One of the bill’s most hotly debated provisions was adding undocumented immigrants to the list of women who can apply for law enforcement certifications for U nonimmigrant status, also known as U visas. The U visa is a temporary visa that “can be sought by victims of certain crimes who are currently assisting or have previously assisted law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of a crime, or who are likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.”[3] While U-visas are not exclusively for domestic violence victims, they allow undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status to stay in the US if they can assist the police to prosecute their abusers. This part of the proposal has drawn opposition from Republicans who argued that this provision would create potentials for fraud and abuse of visas from people who try to obtain permanent status in the US when they would not otherwise qualify.[4]  Earlier proposals included the increase in the number of U visas available, but eventually this provision was taken out. Currently, there are only 10,000 U visas available each year.[5]

Besides the a number of issues that victims of domestic violence face such as protecting children from abuse, finding and securing emergency shelter, informing family of the situation, and sorting through housing and financial options for the future, immigrant women have to deal with additional issues. Immigrant women face language barriers, economic insecurity, and discrimination due to gender, race or ethnicity.[6] Most importantly, abusers often use their partners’ immigration status as a tool of control. The problems of domestic violence are "terribly exacerbated in marriages where one spouse is not a citizen and the non-citizen's legal status depends on his or her marriage to the abuser" because “the immigrant victim ability to obtain or maintain lawful immigration status may depend on her relationship to her United States citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse and his willingness to file an immigrant relative petition on her behalf.”[7] In such situations, abusers often force immigrant partners to remain in the relationship by exerting control over the partner’s immigration status.[8]

Due to their status, immigrant women are less likely to report abuse to authorities. However, VAWA allows immigrant victims of domestic violence who are married to U.S. citizens or residents, to self-petition for legal status in the United States without relying on their abusive spouses to sponsor the petition.[9] The USCIS website includes the list of the requirements for U-visas. If immigrant women entered into the marriage in good faith, they can apply for U-visas but they must prove: 1) they have been abused in the United States by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, or have been abused by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse abroad while the spouse was employed by the U.S. government or a member of the U.S. uniformed services, or they are the parent of a child who has been subjected to abuse by a U.S. citizen or permanent spouse and 2) they have resided with the spouse and 3) they are a person of good moral character.[10] Once a self-petition has been approved, the immigrant victim can then apply for a permanent residence status.[11] Since undocumented women are more likely to fear to be reported of their illegal status, the new VAWA would be of great help to the ones who probably need it the most.

However, as mentioned above, there are still many other obstacles for battered immigrants to report the abuse, including language barriers. Many non-profit organizations are dedicated to assist domestic violence victims by providing translated legal services and confidential shelter for them and their children. In the Washington, D.C. area alone there are numerous organizations such as Ayuda, My Sister’s Place, the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC), Asian / Pacific-Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP), the Hartley House, House of Ruth and many more. Further, the increasing and high number of immigrant victims of domestic violence suggests that the number of U-Visas currently available for them fails to fully provide protections that they need. Although the 2013 VAWA may provide stronger protections than the 1994 VAWA, there is still room for improvements.

Min Ji Ku
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

Image by: NCAI

[2] Id.
Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 95
[7] Id.
[10] Id
[11] Id.


  1. Thank you for sharing. I found this post to be very informative and helpful. Immigration law is constantly changing here in America. The best immigration lawyer for you is one who keeps up with this evolving field of law and how knows how best to use the law to protect you and your family and your business when it come to legal proceedings.

    immigration attorney Boston, MA

  2. thanks for share..

  3. I want to thank you for this informative read; I really appreciate sharing this great.

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