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This article was originally published on August 01, 2009.

Tahirih helps many clients who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, human trafficking, and other violent crimes under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and related federal legislation. Congress must renew VAWA every four years. It was last reauthorized in 2006 and is up for reauthorization again in 2011.

Discussions are already underway about how to refine, reinforce, and expand the protections and assistance that VAWA provides to survivors of violence.

Tahirih is serving on the Immigration Committee of the VAWA IV National Task Force, and is helping to collect input from their colleague service-providers around the country, as well as from Tahirih’s staff and extensive Pro Bono Attorney Network (with over 650 lawyers from 110 firms).

Tahirih’s approach

Tahirih’s work on VAWA’s reauthorization has underscored the vital importance of its combination of direct services and public policy advocacy. Tahirih’s unique organizational model ensures that challenges posed to individual immigrant survivors can be translated into proposals for lasting systemic reform, so that laws, implementing regulations, and agency protocols all become more powerful and coordinated mechanisms for protection. Specific proposals made as part of the VAWA IV National Task Force include:

  • US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) should be required to engage in expedited processing of visa petitions for battered immigrants, given how precarious their situation often is until they receive their approvals. USCIS has set a nominal goal time of five months for processing VAWA self-petitions, but in Tahirih’s experience, processing times can stretch to 18 months or even longer. In that interim, many clients are not entitled to work authorization. The ripple effects of this chronic legal, physical, and psychological uncertainty are profound. Among other things, it can be extremely challenging for Tahirih’s clients to find a safe place to live, particularly when domestic violence shelters often only permit stays of up to 30 days and long-term shelters (transitional housing) often require residents to work.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)should be prevented from deporting victims with a pending U visa petition (a type of visa available to non-citizen victims of certain serious crimes who cooperate with the police). Currently, ICE has the power to grant stays of removal (an order preventing deportation) to U visa petitioners, but does not always exercise it. In a particularly egregious case, ICE refused to grant a stay and deported Tahirih client and her small child back to her home country on the same plane as her abuser. Given this disturbing lack of sensitivity to basic safety concerns, ICE should be legally restrained from deporting these vulnerable victims.
  • Procedural regulations need to keep pace with changes in VAWA to ensure that victims get the full benefit of those improvements. Important new provisions were added to VAWA in 2006. For example, while human trafficking victims are typically required to cooperate with law enforcement investigations and prosecutions, VAWA III provided that they could be exempted from doing so if the experience would be too traumatic. This humanitarian provision was included to acknowledge not only how painful it is for victims to relive their experiences as witnesses, but also that victims’ cooperation can place themselves and their families at grave risk of retaliation from the trafficker’s criminal network. Unfortunately, because no regulations have been issued that clarify how to prove that trauma, what kind of application to prepare to get the exemption, and where even to file it, Tahirih is unaware of any instance in which this vital exemption has actually been used.

Protection of “mail-order” brides tied to VAWA

In addition to the above, Tahirih is also developing a number of proposals specifically regarding the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA), legislation incorporated in a prior VAWA reauthorization that Tahirih helped draft and champion to protect so-called “mail-order brides” from abuse and exploitation.

Among other priorities, Tahirih hopes to clarify and strengthen IMBRA to ensure that the government puts a comprehensive enforcement regime in place—including technical assistance to international marriage brokers (IMBs) on their obligations, a hotline for women to report non-compliant IMBs and get referrals to domestic violence service-providers, the capacity to conduct investigations and bring prosecutions—as well as to specify which government offices should be assigned those responsibilities.

Tahirih looks forward to continuing this work in the coming years and making exciting progress with coalition partners toward realizing the full potential of all federal laws intended to protect vulnerable immigrants from abuse.