Statement of Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims
U.S. House of Representatives
JULY 20, 2000
I would like to thank Chairman Hyde, Chairman Smith, Congresswoman Jackson-Lee and members of the Subcommittee for holding this hearing and allowing me the opportunity to address the desperate needs of battered immigrant women and their families. I appreciate your interest in exploring the complex issues facing battered immigrant women and your commitment to working towards solutions that will allow battered immigrants to escape the violence and to provide a safe future for themselves and their children. I would also like to acknowledge and thank Congresswomen Morella and Jackson-Lee for their leadership on this bipartisan bill, and Mrs. Morella for her years of outstanding leadership on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), on which this legislation builds.
I represent the 9th Congressional District in Illinois, a Chicago and suburban district that is a human tapestry and serves as a gateway to America for immigrants from all parts of the globe. Every day these hardworking immigrants are embracing the challenges of their adopted nation and contributing to the vibrancy of our community.
But, as in every community, there exists the tragedy of domestic violence. While the victims of abuse are by definition in a traumatic situation, the immigrant victim who must rely on her abuser to avoid deportation is in even worse trouble. H.R. 3083, the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act, is intended to assist these victims. It seeks to strengthen and expand access to a variety of legal protections for battered immigrants so they may flee violent homes, obtain court protection, cooperate in the criminal prosecution of their abusers and take control of their lives without fear of deportation.
Let me begin by emphasizing what my bill will NOT do: It will NOT open the floodgates to undocumented or unwanted immigrants. According to experts, this bill will increase the number of VAWA filings and approvals by at most 10 percent. Last year that would have amounted to 190 additional approvals. It is important to understand that almost all of the individuals who would benefit from this bill would, but for the abuse, have access to legal immigration status. Let me say that again: Nearly all potential beneficiaries of this bill would be eligible, through traditional family based immigration policy, to legalize their immigration status.
As it stands now, under immigration law, a spouse who is married to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident must wait either two or five years before filing a joint petition to legalize his or her immigration status. If an immigrant spouse leaves a violent home to escape abuse, that person must self-petition for legal immigration status (relief provided under VAWA) and must also meet a litany of very high evidentiary standards in order to obtain legal status.
These barriers are so daunting that many immigrant spouses who suffer from domestic violence choose to stay with their abuser, hoping to live out the years it will take before they are eligible to file a joint petition. This is particularly true when they have no access to attorneys or advocates, a situation that often occurs for people who are isolated in their communities because of language barriers or threats by their abusive spouse. Sadly, many immigrant spouses find their gamble never pays off because their abuser refuses to file a joint petition, using his or her power to maintain their spouse's undocumented status as leverage to keep the spouse from leaving.
In essence, what our immigration policy is saying to abused spouses is, "put up with the abuse, risk your life and the lives of your children, and maybe you'll get legal immigration status." I do not believe this is the message we wish to convey to immigrants. I believe the disparity in our message unfairly burdens VAWA applicants and undermines VAWA's original intent to protect battered immigrant women.
The Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act continues the work that began with the passage of the first Violence Against Women Act in 1994, allowing battered immigrant women to escape domestic abuse by addressing adverse incentives that trap them in violent relationships.
Specifically, H.R. 3083 addresses five areas of concern in current immigration law. It redefines who is eligible for protection under VAWA; addresses implementation problems in VAWA '94; continues the commitment Chairman Smith put forth in 1996 by ensuring that battered immigrants have access to the economic safety net crucial to their ability to escape their abusers; provides INS and law enforcement officers with the necessary training and tools to ensure that abusers are prosecuted; and makes technical corrections that remove ambiguities in current law.
This is a complex issue, which I found easiest to understand through examples. Let me share a few.
· H.R. 3083 ends an unintended incentive for victims to stay with their abusers. Under current immigration laws, abusers who are convicted of domestic violence crimes may be deported from the U.S. One unintended effect is that the battered immigrant loses his/her access to permanent immigration status once the abusive spouse is deported for a crime of domestic violence. This situation creates a perverse incentive for the battered immigrant to tolerate the abuse rather than report it. This bill allows the battered immigrant to access permanent immigration status and to fully cooperate with the criminal prosecution of her abuser even if her abuser is deported.
Example: Marta was stabbed by her permanent resident spouse. He was arrested. Marta would like to cooperate in the criminal prosecution of her spouse, but is afraid since her immigration status is dependent on her husband's. He is subsequently convicted of a crime of domestic violence. INS is now initiating deportation proceedings against her spouse. Marta loses her access to permanent immigration status if her immigration application is not approved before his deportation.
· H.R. 3083 extends access to divorced victims of domestic abuse. Under current immigration laws, the abused immigrant spouse must be married to the U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Savvy abusers often sprint to the courthouse for a quick divorce because they know this will cut off her access to immigration relief. This bill allows battered immigrants who are divorced from their abusers to file their applications for immigration status within 2 years of the divorce, death or loss of citizenship of the abuser.
Example: Mona, who is from Poland, married a U.S. citizen. She was severely abused during the first years of her marriage. She fled to a shelter and immediately her spouse sought a divorce to effectively cut her off from any permanent immigration status. Mona will not have access to permanent immigration status if she had not submitted her application prior to the final divorce.
· H.R. 3083 allows VAWA self-petitioners to adjust their status in the U.S. Under current immigration laws, abused immigrants are forced to leave the U.S. to obtain their lawful permanent residence. Traveling outside the U.S. deprives these women of the protection provided by courts, legislation, custody decrees, and law enforcement. This bill allows women to safely obtain permanent immigration status in the U.S.
Example: Marie is originally from Haiti. She married a permanent resident when she came to the U.S. He burnt her with cigarettes, hit her, and threw objects at her throughout their marriage. She filed a protection order against him ensuring her safety within U.S. borders. Marie is in the final stages of obtaining her green card. Under current law, she must travel back to Haiti to complete the filing process. She fears that her husband will follow her to Haiti and she will not have the safety of her protection order or receive the same police protection as in the U.S.
· H.R. 3083 extends access to elder immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse. Under current law, the abused immigrant parent of a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident has no access to immigration relief without the cooperation of the abusive adult son or daughter. This bill allows the battered immigrant parent to file their own application for immigration relief.
Example: Alejandro, a 71-year-old native and citizen of Peru, came to the United State on a tourist visa to visit with his daughter, Rosa, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Once he arrived, Alejandro suffered severe abuse at the hands of his daughter and her U.S. citizen husband. Alejandro's daughter and husband cut off his ability to contact the police and report the abuse. Alejandro's tourist visa eventually expired, and therefore, his status changed from non-immigrant to illegal. Under current law, Alejandro has no access to immigration relief.
· H.R. 3083 extends access to abused sons and daughters over age 21. Under current immigration laws, only spouses or minor children of U.S. citizens or residents have access to permanent immigration status. Abused sons or daughters over 21 years old have no access to permanent immigration status even though they have suffered years of domestic or sexual abuse perpetrated by their citizen or resident parent. This bill contains provisions that extend immigration relief to individuals over 21 who can demonstrate that battery or extreme cruelty had occurred during their childhood prior to turning 21 years old.
Example: Sandra is the 22-year-old daughter of a U.S. citizen. At 10 years old, she came with her mother when her mother married the U.S. citizen. She was sexually abused for 8 years by her mother's husband. This abuser has never filed immigration status for Sandra. Under current laws, Sandra has no access to legal immigration relief.
· H.R. 3083 extends access to battered immigrant spouses who unknowingly marry bigamists. Under current law, the abused immigrant spouse of a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident has no access to legal immigration status if his/her spouse is proven to be a bigamist. This bill allows spouses who entered their marriage in good faith, but unknowingly married a bigamist, to file their own application for immigration status.
Example: Catherine, a native and citizen of Ireland, came to the United States on a student visa, but remained after the visa had expired. In the meantime, while living in New York, she met and fell in love with James, a U.S. citizen. Within a year of meeting each other, the two were married. Shortly after marriage, however, the relationship became extremely abusive. While otherwise eligible for VAWA relief, Catherine found out that James's "ex-wife" was really still his wife. He had not obtained a proper divorce in the state of California, and therefore remained legally married to his first wife, and engaged in a bigamist relationship with Catherine. Consequently, because Catherine is, technically, the wife of a bigamist, she is not eligible for VAWA relief.
Domestic violence is an economic and heath crisis for this nation. It harms not only men and women, but also the lives of children who witness violence in their homes or experience violence themselves. Every 15 seconds, someone in our country is battered. Every day, four women die in this country as a result of domestic violence. That's over 1,400 women a year. In addition, at least 170,000 violent incidents are serious enough to require hospitalization, emergency room care or a doctor's attention. Every incident of domestic violence should be of concern to us. Every person -- woman, man or child -- should feel safe at home and in their neighborhoods.
But there are some victims, namely immigrant women and their children, who face additional obstacles to breaking free from the violence. In addition to having an abuser who uses their immigration status as a tool to control and coerce, the barriers of a different language and culture often lead to isolation and compound the ability of battered immigrants to seek traditional domestic violence and support services.
With the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, Congress sent a clear message to this nation that violence against women is not just wrong, it's a crime. Prior to 1994, abusive citizens and permanent residents had total control over their spouse's immigration status. As a result, battered immigrant women and children were forced to remain in abusive relationships.
That is why VAWA '94 was an important first step. It included provisions to protect battered immigrant women and children. Among them, battered immigrants were allowed to file their own applications for immigration relief without the cooperation of their abusive spouse. The intent of these protections was that no one should be forced to choose between deportation and abuse. But, despite some successes of the immigration provisions of VAWA '94, subsequent legislation and the complexities of immigration law continue to place barriers in the way of the very people who need relief the most.
By passing the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act, this Committee has the opportunity to build on our strong record of opposing all violence against women, keeping victims safe and holding abusers accountable. My bill balances the INS' need to maintain the integrity of our immigration system with the delicate special needs of battered immigrant women and their families. It provides them with a legal way to escape the abuse and end the cycle of violence without the fear of deportation or being separated from their children. Thank you.