Violence Against Women Act – A Lifeline to Freedom

In April 2012 the House passed a new version of the Violence Against Women Act Act (“VAWA”) that curtailed many protections afforded to immigrant women and eliminated the ability of women protected under this Act to obtain citizenship by cooperating in criminal cases. The President has threatened to Veto this Act, but the once bi-partisan bill is currently a contentious political issue.
First, I am not an immigration attorney and my experience with immigration issues is limited to my interactions with them as a family law attorney. The immigration statute I have had the most interaction with is the Violence Against Women. In my opinion it is an enormously helpful piece of legislation that offers immigrant women a way out of abusive relationships and helps them on the path to citizenship.
I am not interested in getting involved in a debate about immigration or politics, but what I am interested in is preserving one of the only lifelines available to immigrant women who are suffering unspeakable abuse at the hands of their spouse.  Because these women are in this country illegally or their path to citizenship is presently tied to the will of their abusers, they suffer in silence for fear that if they report the abuse they will be deported or their spouse will withdraw their immigration application filed on their behalf.
My first interaction with VAWA happened three years ago. I accepted a pro bono divorce case from a local domestic violence organization. My client was a young woman from Pakistan who has been living in this country for almost 20 years.  Her father had brought her with him when he immigrated to the U.S. to avoid persecution in his home country. My client had been bounced around the immigration system for years. She was very close to receiving a green card right before September 11, 2001. However, due to those events she was pushed further down the list and her green card was again delayed. In the mean time she was living in the U.S. legally on a student visa and attended college a prestigious local university.  Later, she worked at a local investment firm on a work visa.
It was my client’s misfortune during this time to meet her future husband. On paper he looked like the perfect man: he had a large family, he was a doctor, he worked with local charities and even financially supported his mother and sister. My client’s family whole-heartedly approved of him and they were married a short time after they met.
However, almost immediately after the couple was married the husband began to savagely beat my client. He would lock her in their apartment all day and forbid her to leave. She was no longer allowed to have her own phone or talk to any of her friends and family. She was also not allowed to have her own money or bank account.
Unfortunately, her problems did not end with beatings and imprisonment.  Because my client had married she was no longer eligible to petition for citizenship through her father and her original petition was cancelled.  She had to start the entire process over with her new husband as her sponsor. This change gave the husband incredible power over the wife. Each time my client did something the husband didn’t like he would threaten to withdraw his petition, and because her former petition had been withdrawn she was not able to legally work in this country.
My client lived in constant fear that her husband would beat her to death and she knew that if she reported him to the police, she would be deported because he was her sponsor.  By this time she did not have a single family member still living in Pakistan and she had not been there since she was a child, so she took her beatings and kept her mouth shut.
One day, during a particularly loud altercation between my client and her husband a neighbor called the police. The police arrived and arrested the husband. The next day the wife was granted a 209A restraining order against the husband, and almost immediately after the husband was released from jail he called the couple’s immigration attorney and rescinded his sponsorship of my client’s green card application.
At this time my client had never heard of VAWA. Although she did not personally report the abuse, she could not go back to living with her husband once the criminal case against him had been filed. For her VAWA was a lifeline. It was not a calculated effort to defraud the immigration system or illegally enter this country.
If VAWA did not offer my client a pathway to citizenship that was not tied to the will of her abuser she would have had little choice but to drop the restraining order and return to her husband so that she would no be deported. Instead, my client was able to keep her restraining order, get divorced and begin a life of her own.
In my opinion, reauthorization of this Act should not be a political matter, but rather a human rights issue. Anyone that has worked with domestic violence victims will tell you it can be next to impossible to get a victim to report the violence in the first place, but if we are also going to tell them that if they dare try to stop their abuse they could be deported then we as a country are not only telling them they don’t matter, but we are also empowering their abusers to keep abusing with impunity because these women don’t have a choice but to take it.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You can judge a society by how they treat their weakest members.” In my opinion these immigrant women are some of our society’s weakest members, and not only do they need our protection, but they also deserve it.