Victims of domestic violence can get lawful residency

By Attorney Kate Radder
Radder Immigration Law

The issues of domestic violence and sexual assault have increasingly become important subjects of international and domestic discussion and debate and have an enormous, continual effect on society. Instead of providing a healthy, supportive family structure for their (so-called) loved ones, perpetrators of domestic violence break families apart and often cause their victims long-term psychological trauma. To make matters worse, witnessing violence between parents or caretakers is the strongest factor in whether such behavior will be transmitted from one generation to the next.

In the U.S. alone, it has been estimated that at least one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. However, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, it is one of the most chronically underreported crimes in the entire country. Persons present in the U.S. without lawful status are especially vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual assault crime because of the abuser’s ability to exploit the immigration status of his or her victims. In an effort to provide protection to spouses and/or children that were being abused by their U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse or parent, in 1994, Congress enacted, and President Clinton signed, the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”).

The enactment of VAWA demonstrated lawmakers’ awareness of the severity of domestic violence and sexual assault: it was the first federal legislation to acknowledge these offenses as crimes. VAWA was meant to encourage immigrant survivors of domestic violence to report instances of abuse, as they are even less likely to report such criminal activity. These victims are hesitant to assist with the investigation and prosecution of their abusers in fear that their immigration status will be investigated, as well. VAWA provided a way in which undocumented victims in the U.S. who reported domestic violence and assisted law enforcement in its prosecution could obtain permission to be in the country and even obtain lawful permanent resident status.

VAWA was reauthorized in both 2000 and 2005 and has historically had bipartisan support. However, last year, the Republicans and Democrats had very different stances on reauthorization of VAWA, and the Senate and the House drafted bills that were different in many important ways. Ultimately, the reauthorization of VAWA was stalled.

The setback was, in large part, caused by major changes that were included in the House bill. The bill took away many of the victim protections that had been present since 1994, and that were the essence of the legislation. Among other changes, the House bill excluded all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims, made the immigration process longer and allowed the abusers to participate in it. Both the Senate and President Obama opposed these changes.

However, perhaps due to a starkly different political climate, in February of this year the House and Senate were able to agree and push a new bill to the President’s desk to be signed. The bill was passed in the House by 286 to 138, and in the Senate by 78-22. (Interestingly, in the Senate, the majority included all women, all Democrats, and just over half of Republicans.)

The newly passed legislation expands protection to victims. It creates and expands federal programs that assist local law enforcement and communities in working with survivors of domestic violence. It also provides for the training of local law enforcement on U and T visas, which grant critical protections for undocumented survivors of certain crimes and human trafficking.

Should you or someone you know be a victim of domestic violence, there are laws on your side. Also, the Illinois Attorney General and the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health also provide a long list of Chicago and Illinois domestic violence support agencies.

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