Lessons from Eva on VAWA’s Anniversary

Posted March 7, 2014

What does March 7 mean to you?

At Tahirih Justice Center, it’s an important anniversary for reflection and recommitment. One year ago, after a long struggle by a broad-based, bipartisan coalition of leading national advocates including Tahirih, President Obama signed the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act into law. This hard-won legislation provides critical tools to combat violence against women, help survivors rebuild their lives, and hold criminals accountable.

But for women like Eva* across the U.S., the fight to end violence is not over.

Eva fled Guatemala to escape her violently abusive boyfriend. She feared she would never be safe if she stayed in her home country. She took a job as a cook at an Italian restaurant in northwest Washington, D.C. It wasn’t long before she realized she wasn’t safe at the restaurant, either.

Over a period of three months, the restaurant owner sexually harassed and assaulted Eva. His verbal abuse quickly escalated into a series of violent attacks. When Eva was alone in the kitchen, her boss crept up behind her and groped her. He attacked her in the hallway, banging her head against the wall, and sexually assaulted her in the bathroom. Eva didn’t feel safe anywhere.

Like many criminals, her boss thought he would get away this abuse because Eva was an undocumented immigrant. He threatened to have Eva deported if she went to the police, and Eva kept quiet out of fear. After a particularly violent attack, Eva risked everything and reported her boss to the police.

Because of Eva’s courage, law enforcement officials arrested her attacker.

In partnership with a pro bono attorney from Arnold & Porter LLP, Tahirih helped Eva secure a U visa because she was a victim of a serious crime who suffered substantial harm and had the courage to assist law enforcement in making our community safer.

The U visa is a protection that was carefully crafted to reduce immigrant’s vulnerability to crime and serve our whole nation’s security interests. Top law enforcement officials agree. Again and again, they encounter criminals who count on the fact that immigrant victims will be too fearful of deportation to get help from police.

In 2013, Tahirih helped more than 200 violent-crime victims like Eva achieve safety and rebuild their lives through the U visa program.

“The most important thing is that I can be with my kids and keep them safe, that I can live and work without fear and move on with my life,” Eva recently told her Tahirih attorney. “Now, we can send a signal to other women. If this is happening to you, speak up and say something. It’s not right. You can stand up. You can speak the truth.”

Unfortunately, there is an arbitrary limit on how many U visas can be issued in a year. In 2013, that cap was reached within a few months, leaving victims like Eva without an opportunity to put their trauma in the past. Instead, their names were added to an ever-growing waitlist, remaining in legal limbo and unable to stabilize themselves or their families.

Arbitrary limits like the cap on the number of annually available U visas are thwarting the potency of VAWA and other tools in the fight to end violence against women. We clearly have more work to do.

Tahirih and other leading national advocates are pressing Congress to raise the U visa cap and enact other survivor-inspired immigration provisions that would better protect immigrant women and girls from violence.

On this anniversary, let’s renew our commitment to end violence against women. Let’s ensure that VAWA lives up to its full potential. If we don’t, predators like Eva’s boss will capitalize on our nation’s inaction.

This article is part of our Winter 2014 Newsletter. Read the full newsletter.

*To protect client privacy, client name has been changed.
**Client’s comments to her attorney at the case’s conclusion have been paraphrased.