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Barbara Strack

Acting Executive Associate Commissioner

Office of Policy and Planning

Immigration and Naturalization Service

Department of Justice


HR 3083

The Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 1999

Before the

House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims

Committee on the Judiciary

July 20, 2000

2226 Rayburn House Office Building



Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting the Immigration and Naturalization Service to appear before you to comment on HR 3083, the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 1999. My name is Barbara Strack, and I am the Acting Executive Associate Commissioner for the Office of Policy and Planning at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Let me begin by describing the impact that the immigration provisions of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 - commonly known as "VAWA" - have had. It has helped thousands of spouses and children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPR) who are victims of domestic violence but who are not themselves U.S. citizens or LPRs. We know that fear of deportation or removal from the United States means abused family members are less likely to report domestic violence or to leave an abusive household. An abusive spouse or parent has a powerful weapon by controlling the immigration application process. This can be misused in many ways: threatening to report a family member to the INS, making false promises to file a petition some time in the future, withdrawing a petition that has already been filed, withholding important documentation, or refusing to appear for the scheduled interview with INS. VAWA allows qualified individuals to self-petition and - under the INS interim rule - allows those who self-petition to keep the earlier priority date if there has already been a petition filed by the batterer on the victim’s behalf. This takes away one of the tools that a batterer could otherwise use to control the victim of abuse.

Since the publication of the interim regulation in March 1996, INS has received more than 11,000 self-petitions, and has approved over 6,500. This number does not include the children of self-petitioners who derive immigration status through a parent’s self-petition. While the majority of the applicants are women, the Service has also approved self-petitions filed by battered men and children.

The success of this program in providing vital immigration relief to battered immigrants is due in large part to the centralization of the adjudication process at the Vermont Service Center in St. Albans, Vermont. The centralization of this process at the Vermont Service Center is particularly appropriate for this type of small volume, complex adjudication. At the Service Center we have established a streamlined procedure for careful and sensitive processing of these self-petitions. Realizing the urgent need and unique circumstances of these individuals, the applications receive special handling from the mailroom and data entry to the adjudication process. For example, they are pre-screened to ensure that the Service uses a safe address for any correspondence with the self-petitioner.

The self-petitions are then assigned to the VAWA unit. This is a special team consisting of experienced adjudicators who have received extensive training to ensure they understand the dynamics of domestic violence and its impact on issues such as whether victims report these crimes to the police or victims’ need for access to public benefits to escape the abuse. Most importantly, the training focuses on how batterers use their authority over victims’ immigration status to control victims and prevent them from seeking assistance from the criminal justice system. The Service has worked closely with many of the organizations that provide assistance nationwide to victims of domestic violence. Their expertise has been invaluable in establishing a program that is truly working to help victims of domestic violence find safety and independence.

While the current law and regulations have been extremely effective, our experience in implementing VAWA over several years has revealed the existence of gaps in VAWA that we believe are unintended, but that prevent many battered immigrants with approved self-petitions from completing the process by applying for adjustment of status or an immigrant visa. I am here today to express INS support for specific provisions of HR 3083 which would eliminate those gaps, ensuring that qualified battered immigrants are able to complete the immigration process that leads to lawful permanent residence. The INS believes that such improvements to VAWA are consistent with its purpose of giving battered aliens the same immigration opportunities as similarly situated aliens who have not been battered.

One of the most important issues is how the sunset of Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) limits the ability of battered immigrants to become lawful permanent residents. Specifically, many self-petitioners whose petitions have been approved find themselves either statutorily ineligible for adjustment of status in the United States, or forced to leave the country to obtain an immigrant visa after having accrued lengthy periods of "unlawful presence" in the U.S. Because of that time accrued in unlawful status, many of them will be ineligible for admission for three or ten years, under one of the provisions added to the INA by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. These battered immigrants also risk exposing themselves to the very hardship and danger documented in the self-petition. Section 3 of HR 3083 would improve this situation by ensuring that battered immigrants with approved self-petitions could remain in the United States to seek adjustment of status.

Another gap is that current immigration law establishes waivers of certain grounds of inadmissibility only for spouses or children who benefit from a relative petition filed by a U.S. citizen or LPR spouse. These waivers are not available to most self-petitioning battered immigrants, either because the spousal relationship no longer exists, or because a substantial connection cannot be established between the battery and the entry into the United States. INS supports those portions of Section 5 of HR 3083 because it grants a more flexible waiver based on humanitarian considerations that address the special circumstances of a self-petitioning battered immigrant.

HR 3083 is a wide-ranging bill that expands immigration benefits and alters the application of the INA in significant ways, and I’ve highlighted several sections that we consider very helpful. INS would also like to draw the Subcommittee’s attention to certain parts of the bill that concern us. I should stress that we are continuing to review the bill and may have additional comments at a later date. We look forward to working with you in this regard.

We are concerned that HR 3083 proposes to change the current eligibility requirements by making this relief available to individuals who live outside the United States or have never resided in the United States with the abusive spouse or parent, by eliminating the requirement that the self-petitioner be physically present in the United States at the time of filing, or have resided in the United States with the abusive spouse. Although INS does consider spouses or children of U.S. citizens or LPRs who are serving in the military or work on behalf of the United States Government outside the U.S. to be in the United States for the purpose of filing a self-petition, legislation clarifying this eligibility would be helpful.

Another significant proposed change in HR 3083 that deserves careful scrutiny is Section 7. This section would amend the INA to permit individuals who enter the United States with a non-immigrant visa as a fiancé(e) to be eligible to apply for benefits that are currently reserved for the battered spouse or child of a U.S. citizen or LPR. A fiance(e) visa is temporary, valid only for 90 days. A person who fails to enter into marriage with the U.S. citizen after entering the United States on a short-term nonimmigrant fiance(e) visa should be treated just like any other nonimmigrant when the rationale for temporary admission no longer applies and should not stay in the United States indefinitely.

Additionally, the INS recommends striking Section 7(e), Access to Naturalization for Divorced Victims of Abuse. Under current law, most immigrants must wait 5 years to naturalize, but spouses in intact marriages to United States citizens are eligible for citizenship after only 3 years. Section 7(e) would allow self-petitioners to naturalize after 3 years instead of the usual 5, but would leave the usual 5-year rule in place for abused spouses who leave their abusive relationship after obtaining LPR status, giving self-petitioners more favorable treatment than these other abused immigrant spouses.

Finally, INS wants to reiterate the Administration’s support for establishing a new, non-immigrant visa category (T-visa) which will facilitate enforcement of trafficking laws while protecting the victims of such offenses.

I want to reiterate INS’ support for the underlying goals of HR 3083 and for many provisions of the bill. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the sponsors of HR 3083 and with the Subcommittee to craft meaningful legislation that fills in the unintended gaps of VAWA and helps immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.

This concludes my testimony before the Subcommittee. Once again, thank you for the opportunity to share the views of the Immigration and Naturalization Service on this important bill. I would be happy to answer your questions.