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This article was originally published on March 02, 2021.

The following is an excerpt taken from an analysis created by the Alliance for Immigrant Survivors, which the Tahirih Justice Center co-chairs with other advocates. The full analysis can be viewed here.

On Thursday, February 18, 2021, Representative Linda Sánchez and Senator Bob Menendez introduced the text of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 (USCA) which lays out broad reforms to our broken immigration system and a pathway to status for millions of immigrants. Many of these reforms, if passed, would have a significant impact on immigrant survivors of gender-based violence and their families. Below are a few highlights of the bill prepared by the Alliance for Immigrant Survivors policy working group.

 

ENHANCEMENTS TO SURVIVOR-BASED PROTECTIONS

Increase of U visa Cap & Access to Work Authorization: The bill raises the U visa cap from 10,000 visas available annually for principal applicants to 30,000. To help survivors regain safety and stability after victimization and to address growing backlogs, the bill provides work authorization for pending U and T visas to be issued no later than 180 days after filing.

  • Impact on Survivors: While this increase represents a promising start, Congress should consider additional increases to address the growing backlog and delays in the U visa program. In addition, providing work authorization for pending VAWA self-petitions or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) applications is not included; and AIS and our partners are working to address this omission.

Preventing Removal & Limits to Detention: The bill instructs DHS officials not to remove survivors with pending T visa, U visa, or VAWA-based relief until a final decision has been reached in their cases including any appeal period. It also creates a rebuttable presumption that survivors with pending T visa, U visa, or VAWA-based relief should be released from detention. DHS can overcome this presumption based on clear and convincing evidence that alternatives to detention will not be viable or that the person is a threat to another person or the community. However, pending criminal charges can’t be the sole reason for detention.

  • Impact on Survivors: The bipartisan protections created in VAWA and the TVPA are undermined when survivors are denied access to immigration benefits. These provisions ensure that survivors will not be deported before their applications for immigration relief are decided.

Access to Counsel in Immigration Court: The bill provides a right to appointed counsel in Immigration Court to noncitizens who are unable to pay and who are children or “vulnerable” individuals including Respondents with disabilities and victims of abuse, torture or violence, pregnant and lactating individuals, and parents of U.S. Citizen minors. If the immigration judge fails to appoint counsel for these individuals, then they will not be subject to any Motion to Reopen limitations, and those Motions to Reopen would stay an order of removal. The bill also mandates training for immigration judges on age, gender, and trauma sensitivity.

  • Impact on Survivors: This provision helps to ensure that survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking have access to counsel, which can be a game-changing factor in having a successful outcome of their cases. Because many survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking are frequently isolated and misinformed by their abusers, they may be unaware of their legal rights and available protections, making access to counsel particularly critical.

ASYLUM AND BORDER REFORMS

Elimination of the One Year Filing Deadline: The bill repeals the one-year asylum filing deadline for asylum applications and permits reopening for many individuals denied protection due to untimely filing.

  • Impact on survivors: Survivors seeking asylum in the United States face many hurdles to being able to file their applications for protection within one year of arrival. Beyond healing from the impacts of the traumatic experiences that precipitated their flight, among other things, they are often caring for children or other family members and isolated from legal representatives or other support services. This reform is monumental; asylum requires a less demanding burden than other forms of protection and is more protective, permitting survivors to petition for their children and nonabusive partners.

Work Authorization for Asylum Seekers: The bill would require work authorization to be provided to asylum seekers on a shortened time frame.

  • Impact on survivors: At present, asylum seekers must wait at least six months before they are eligible for work authorization. Without the ability to work or qualify for many public benefits, they are left to fend for themselves, which can be particularly difficult for survivors who have children to provide for and/or have been economically dependent on others.

Increased capacity to process asylum seekers: The bill sets forth a series of provisions aimed at improving border processing, including for individuals seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. It also calls for new and required training for CBP officers, and other measures to ensure the proper medical care and treatment for arriving immigrants, especially children.

  • Impact on survivors: The previous administration all but eliminated the ability to seek asylum at the southern border, forcing asylum seekers to wait in dangerous conditions where they were subject to rape and other violence and extortion. Where survivors come to the border seeking protection, the bill would help ensure their claims are processed quickly, so they may be less exposed to violence and more quickly connected with resources and community support.

 

OTHER IMPORTANT REFORMS/PROVISIONS

Codifying Humanizing Language: The USCA completely eliminates the dehumanizing term “alien” from the Immigration and Nationality Act and instead uses the term “noncitizen” to describe individuals who are not citizens or nationals of the United States.

Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Assessments of Root Causes of Migration: The bill calls for the creation of a 4-year plan entitled ‘‘United States Strategy for Engagement in Central America’’ to advance reforms in Central America and to address factors contributing to the flight of families, unaccompanied minors, and other individuals, including elements to improve access to justice, protect vulnerable and at-risk populations, and to prevent and respond to endemic levels of sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence in the region.

The full analysis can be viewed here.