Summary: Priorities for Immigrant Battered Women in Texas
Immigration laws must provide protections for battered immigrant women and their children who, because of the immigration status, are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. Unfortunately, some provisions of the current laws enhance this vulnerability rather than protect against it.
Through experience gained working with battered immigrant women since passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, the domestic violence community has developed the expertise to identify how VAWA may better protect these vulnerable women and their children. Areas of particular concern identified by service providers in Texas include:
· Changes in the abuser's immigration status due to deportation or death should not penalize the victim and her children
· Divorce should not terminate the victim's right to self-petition
· Demonstration of "extreme hardship" impedes protection of the victim and should be eliminated
· Training is critical to implementation of VAWA and H.R. 3083
· Battered immigrant women must have access to civil legal assistance
· Discretionary waivers of good moral character should be permitted
The provisions of H.R. 3083, the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act, complete a statutory system that will maximize the ability of battered immigrant women to escape violence, promote effective prosecution of their abusers and reduce the effects of violence on the innocent children in these homes.
On behalf of immigrant battered women and their children in Texas, the Texas Council on Family Violence strongly encourages this subcommittee to pass H.R. 3083 out of committee favorably.
Bree Buchanan, J.D.
Public Policy Director
Texas Council on Family Violence
Priorities for Battered Immigrant Women in Texas
Importance of the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act, H.R. 3083
Since passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, the domestic violence community has gained invaluable experience working with battered immigrant women. While witnessing many successes, we have also learned the limitations in the original VAWA. Six years later, we now have the expertise to identify these limitations and recommend improvements that will better protect these vulnerable women and their children.
The Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act incorporates the lessons learned and recommendations made by advocates working on behalf of battered immigrant women and builds on the protections incorporated in the original VAWA. If enacted, this vital legislation will complete a statutory system that will:
· maximize the ability of these victims to escape the violence in their homes,
· enhance prosecution of violent offenders, and
· reduce the effects of violence on the innocent children in these homes.
The provisions contained in H.R. 3083 will advance these important public policies and enhance protection of battered immigrant women who are a particularly vulnerable population of victims of domestic violence.
Battered immigrant women and their children are more vulnerable to domestic violence
Immigrant women face a type of violence and control beyond what U.S. citizen victims of domestic violence face because their abusers have additional tools for exerting control and intimidation. Some common tactics used include:
· Deterring battered immigrant women from contacting law enforcement or cooperating with prosecutors, by threatening to withdraw support of their petition for residency status, or may threaten that they "will get them deported."
· Abusers give misinformation to the women about laws in this country to control her through fear. For example, an abuser will tell his wife that, because he helped her get a green card, he can have it taken away.
· In many cases, the abuser speaks better English than the woman and may take advantage of her inability to communicate. For example, he may be able to talk his way out of being arrested when police come to the scene of domestic violence incident.
· Abusers may also take advantage of language, and cultural barriers by isolating her from the community in which they live. Such isolation makes separation from the abuser extremely difficult for the woman and, at the same time, easier for him to continue his control and intimidation of her.
Very often, and perhaps most frightening for a battered immigrant woman, the abuser uses threats directed at the children to maintain control and prevent her from leaving or from contacting the police. He may threaten to abduct the children from the United States. Using deportation proceedings to take away custody of their children is another threat frequently used.
Issues facing battered immigrant women in Texas
In preparation for this hearing, the Texas Council on Family Violence contacted service providers in Texas working on behalf of immigrant battered women and asked them to identify the most critical problems addressed by the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act. While passage of H.R. 3083 in its entirety to fully protect battered immigrant women, this statement will focus on areas identified by service providers in Texas as the highest priorities.
1. Changes in the abuser's immigration status due to deportation or death should not penalize the victim and her children
Because the abuser's deportation will deny a battered immigrant woman the right to self-petition, current immigration law actually discourages her from reporting violence and from cooperating with prosecution of these offenses. Advocates working with battered immigrant women report that these women often fail to seek police intervention or any other help because they know that if a conviction results in his deportation, she will not be eligible to adjust her status. Even if law enforcement intervenes and charges are filed, victims are often too fearful to cooperate with prosecution. In the event the abuser is deported due to his criminal behavior, the battered woman may also face deportation and be forced to take her children - often U.S. citizens - with her. Ultimately, she and the children are punished for his bad acts.
Advocates also report situations where the battered immigrant woman is denied relief because her abuser died. In one case, the drug addicted husband died from a cocaine overdose. Because of this, she became ineligible to self-petition.
2. Divorce should not terminate the victim's right to self-petition
Terminating the right to self-petition upon divorce essentially serves as a deterrent to severing relations with the abuser by the victim. Rather than promoting the battered woman's attempts to free herself from violence, current law actually encourages her to remain in a dangerous situation as long as the immigration proceedings remain pending.
Current law poses an especially difficult problem in Texas where a divorce may be finalized only sixty days after filing. Because preparing the self-petition and gathering supporting documentation will almost always require considerable more time, the abuser can use finalization of the divorce proceedings as a tool to manipulate the victim. He can also this to his advantage to gain an upper hand in negotiations regarding property division or children in the divorce.
3. Demonstration of "Extreme Hardship" impedes protection of the victim and should be eliminated
Lawyers and other service providers assisting immigrant battered women report that proving "extreme hardship" is extremely daunting. The burden is even greater if the woman is facing return to a developed country. They report that INS focuses on country conditions and may deny relief for women who are facing return to countries such as Canada or England, even in cases with very compelling stories of domestic violence.
For women attempting to file their self-petition pro se or who are working with a lay advocate, this requirement presents an almost impossible hurdle because they lack access to resources needed to research and prove hardship.
Ultimately, the requirement to prove extreme hardship is simply a barrier erected to deny women, who are otherwise eligible, the relief to which they are entitled under VAWA. It runs counter to the intent of VAWA and results in the deportation of women the law was designed to protect. Proving domestic violence should be the only "extreme hardship" a battered immigrant woman should be required to prove.
4. Training is critical to implementation of VAWA and H.R. 3083
INS officers in Texas, as well as judges, lawyers, law enforcement, are profoundly unaware of VAWA's immigration provisions. Immigration service providers report that local INS officers often lack knowledge regarding VAWA and routinely ask about what the law provides. Implementation of a law is impossible if individuals charged with its enforcement and administration are unaware of its existence. To ensure that Congress' intentions regarding VAWA and, if enacted, the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act, are carried out, training must be a high priority.
Additionally, those officials interacting with battered immigrant women and abusers must be knowledgeable regarding the dynamics of domestic violence. Lacking this information, officials are subject to manipulation by abusers and may actually become unwitting parties to the abuser's manipulation of the victim. They may also engage in actions that discourage reporting of violence or cooperation with prosecution by the victim. Because the dynamics of domestic violence can be so complex, all officials working with victims and abusers must be educated if laws are to be carried out and further harm to the victim is to be avoided.
5. Battered immigrant women must have access to civil legal assistance
Representation in civil matters is a critical unmet need for all low-income battered women in Texas. Because of the highly complex nature of immigration matters, battered immigrant women have an even greater need for legal representation. Unfortunately, affordable legal services are virtually nonexistent. Those few programs that do exist are overrun with requests for assistance, often receiving desperate calls for help from victims living hundreds of miles away. The private bar, lacking knowledge about the complex issues involved in family violence as well as immigration, is unwilling to fill this void through pro bono services.
Without access to civil legal assistance, battered immigrant women are effectively denied access to the legal remedies afforded them in VAWA. Tragically, innocent - often U.S. citizen - children of the victim are also denied legal protections to which they are entitled.
6. Discretionary waivers of good moral character should be permitted
Dual arrest of both the abuser and victim is a problem occurring in Texas with an alarming frequency. All too often, if the victim takes any action to defend herself, she is arrested along with the batterer. In situations where the victim is an immigrant with poor English skills who cannot explain the circumstances to law enforcement, this occurrence is even more prevalent. Battered immigrant women lack knowledge of the American legal system and access to resources to adequately defend themselves against the charges. All too often, battered women in this situation simply accept a plea bargain (often for deferred adjudication or probation) to avoid trial, potential jail time and the loss of their children. A conviction for this "family violence assault" is now considered evidence that she is not of good moral character and can result in denial of her request for relief.
Immigration officials should have the discretion to take into consideration circumstances surrounding the conviction, such as when the victim is not the primary aggressor but has been convicted for acts of self-defense or for violation of a protective order intended to protect the victim.
H.R. 3083 should be passed out of subcommittee favorably and in its entirety
The "Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 1999" will go far towards remedying these concerns identified as high priorities by service providers in Texas. Passage of this vital legislation is necessary to protect battered immigrant women who are extremely vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.
H.R. 3083 will also advance basic public policy considerations on which safe and healthy communities are based. If battered immigrant women are too fearful to report the abuse, enforcement of the law is hindered. If cooperating with prosecution results in her deportation, she is not likely to assist the state in securing a conviction. If immigration laws effectively discourage intervention, children will continue to suffer the effects of exposure to domestic violence.
Passage of H.R. 3083 in its entirety will maximize the ability of battered immigrant women to escape the violence in their homes, enhance prosecution of abusers and reduce the effects of violence on the innocent children in these homes.
On behalf of immigrant battered women and their children in Texas, the Texas Council on Family Violence strongly encourages this subcommittee to pass H.R. 3083 out of committee favorably and in its entirety.
Bree Buchanan, J.D.
Public Policy Director
Texas Council on Family Violence