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Reform would prevent abuse and exploitation of immigrant women, and improve protections for survivors of domestic violence

WASHINGTON — Imagine jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

That’s exactly what Tahirih’s Public Policy Director Jeanne Smoot asked an audience to imagine this week at a Congressional briefing convened to urge survivor-inspired immigration reform.

For abused immigrant women, the fear of free falling if they leave a violent home is all too familiar. A lack of legal immigration status, legal or economic dependence on an abuser, and gaps or limits to existing legal protections for immigrant survivors can make reporting crimes and seeking help seem impossible.

“Think about that kind of courage and terror that many undocumented women face when they try to stand up for themselves or to seek help and justice. It really is like not knowing if that parachute will ever open for you,” said Smoot, who moderated the Nov. 19 House staff briefing.

Held in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the briefing’s bipartisan call for immigration reform brought together expert panelists to speak to the challenges that abused immigrant women face every day across the country. The event, originally scheduled for October, was postponed to November because of the government shutdown.

The operations director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Norma Amezcua-Mazzei, said that some of the hotline’s most difficult and heart wrenching calls come from immigrant women who want to escape their abusers, but fear deportation and separation from their children. Approximately 39 percent foreign-born Latinas were afraid to call the police or go to court for help because of these immigration-related fears, according to a recent survey by the hotline and the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities.

“Many immigrant victims of violence continue to face many difficult obstacles just to remain safe in this country and in their own home,” Amezcua-Mazzei said. One caller, Amezcua-Mazzei recalled, was told by staff at the domestic violence shelter where she was staying that she would not be referred to other services because she was undocumented, and that “she should just go ahead and give her kids to CPS because of the situation.”

Even a few improvements to existing law would empower immigrant victims to report domestic violence, end abusive relationships, and rebuild their lives in safety, according to service providers who testified at Tuesday’s briefing. Lisa Koop of the National Immigrant Justice Center highlighted several specific provisions at the briefing, which are included in the bipartisan Senate and House immigration reform bills (S. 744 and HR 15). Key provisions would:

  • Increase the number of U visas available each year for immigrant victims who assist in the investigation or prosecution of designated crimes and violations. “The number of U visas that are allocated doesn’t match the prevalence of crimes against women,” Koop said. The current cap on U visas is 10,000 per year.
  • Enable applicants with pending Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) petitions, U and T visa applications to receive work authorization no later than 180 days after their application was filed. Applicants can wait more than a year and half for the adjudication of cases, which undermines their ability to achieve economic independence. “Financial dependence on abusers is a key reason why immigrant victims remain in abusive relationships or return to those relationships after they break free,” Koop said.
  • Eliminate the one-year filing deadline for asylum cases. Women fleeing gender-based violence often don’t know about the deadline, or may be unaware that they are eligible for asylum. “Removing the one-year bar would have a powerful impact on the availability of protection for women who are in dire need,” Koop said.

Service providers and law enforcement experts on the panel at the briefing also emphasized the need to separate the public safety mandate of local law enforcement from the mandates of federal officers in the Department of Homeland Security to enforce immigration law violations, especially minor civil violations. Panelists cited a fear of deportation and separation from children that can be a powerful deterrent, discouraging an untold number of immigrant women from reporting crimes that happen in homes, workplaces and communities.

“Everyone deserves police service and police protection regardless of their immigration status. Involving local police in immigration enforcement runs counter to our mission. It damages the trust and confidence that immigrant communities have in their police department. We need victims to come forward and report crimes. We need witnesses to come forward and testify so we can put the bad guys in jail,” said Tom Manger, chief of the Montgomery County, Md., police department and a board member of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association.

Across the country, police departments have raised concerns about legislation that would undermine community trust by adding immigration enforcement to the police’s mandate, said Dave Rohrer, deputy county executive for public safety in Fairfax County, Va., and the county’s former chief of police.

“No one deserves to be a victim of a crime, particularly a violent crime. And no one should have to suffer harm or fear harm in silence. All persons should feel free to come forward and report crime and to not perceive that the first question out of one my dispatchers, or call-takers, or the paramedic, or the officer on the scene, or the detective for follow-up is, ‘What is your status?’” Rohrer said.

In her stirring opening remarks, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., urged broad bipartisan collaboration to work together to achieve critical immigration reforms.

“Immigration reform is a key component to reducing domestic violence and getting rid of economic exploitation throughout our nation. It would be a strong statement to both abusers and would-be-abusers that their free rides are over – that we will side with the vulnerable over the domineering regardless of the immigration status of those involved. And most importantly, survivors of violence will no longer need to decide between freedom from their abusers and the promise of a better life in the United States, two choices which should never stand at crossroads,” the Congresswoman said.

November’s briefing was co-sponsored by the Bipartisan Congressional Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform and more than a dozen leading national NGOs advocating for the protection of immigrant women and girls from violence, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence, National Domestic Violence Hotline, National Immigrant Justice Center, Casa de Esperanza: the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities, ASISTA Immigration Assistance, the Women’s Refugee Commission, YWCA USA and the Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, as well as faith-based partners such as Church World Service and Jewish Women International.

Tahirih and co-sponsoring colleagues continued to build momentum for comprehensive immigration reform after Tuesday’s briefing, meeting one-on-one with members of Congress and senior staffers.