By Monica Luhar, India-West, Feb. 27, 2013
The U.S. Senate voted 78-22 Feb. 12 to approve the Violence Against Women Act, a federal law enacted in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, that provides grants and legal remedies for women who are the victims of violence. Its passage was widely hailed by South Asian groups, with one Indian American activist terming it a ‘family-saver’ for many immigrants suffering from domestic violence.
The bill now awaits approval in the House.
VAWA, which expired in September 2011, was reintroduced Jan. 25. The 112th Congress had failed to renew VAWA after Republicans disagreed with provisions drafted by Democrats that expanded protections for the LGBT community, Native Americans and illegal immigrants.
A provision to increase the cap on U visas — which grant victims of certain crimes temporary legal status and work eligibility in the U.S. for up to four years — was not included in the current bill.
The law, if passed by the House and signed by the president, over the next five years provides an estimated budget of $659 million. In its present form, the bill expands protections for the LGBT community and Native Americans.
Since 1994, VAWA has set stiffer penalties for rapists, offered training to police officers and community workers, and provided grants for legal aid, temporary housing and other services.
Anu Jain, director of operations and outreach at Southern California-based South Asian Helpline and Referral Agency, which has provided over 2,112 nights of shelter for clients and assisted more than 300 Indian American and other South Asian domestic violence victims, told India-West that VAWA “has not just been a lifesaver, but a ‘family-saver’ for many immigrants suffering from domestic violence.”
“It has assisted the victims and their children involved in such unfortunate situations to receive immigration relief.”
Jain pointed out that while SAHARA does not receive VAWA funding, it does receive money from the Los Angeles County social services department. Under VAWA now, immigrants whose non-citizen status makes them vulnerable to domestic violence are protected.
“Statistics show a significant decline in domestic violence since VAWA was first enacted in 1994,” Jain told India-West. “VAWA not only protects victims’ safety, it also enhances prevention efforts, community outreach, along with improved response to victims of violence.”
U visas, created initially in 2000 by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, helps non-citizens obtain citizenship if they are victims of domestic violence or other crimes.
“Some of our domestic violence clients have been able to utilize theU visa provision offered by VAWA and thereby get a second chance to live a happy life, free from fear and pain,” she said.
While the U visa cap is not increased in the Senate bill, “having a bill with a certain number of visas is much better than not having a bill at all,” the SAHARA leaders said.
Anita Sinha, practitioner-in-residence at the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., told India-West that the current 10,000 cap on U visas was reached earlier the last fiscal year than in any previous year.
In the South Asian community, there are cultural barriers that prevent victims of violence from reporting crimes or reaching out to the police, she explained. “The protection provided by the U visa option can make the difference between getting help or not in a life-threatening situation.”
Saima Husain, deputy director at the Artesia, Calif.-based South Asian Network, told India-West that despite no increase in U visas, it will remain an option for victims of violent crimes.
“As more survivors learn about this form of immigration relief, we are likely to see an increase in filings, and therefore South Asian and other immigrants are likely to see longer wait times” for U visas, she said.
SAN has a civil rights unit focusing on immigration, civil rights and civic engagement, including monthly immigration clinics on resources for victims of violence, torture and human trafficking. Husain said SAN has helped more than 60 community members in that category this year.
Sapna Pandya, director of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Many Languages One Voice, previously was director of the South Asian Health Initiative in New York City. While there, she observed that many South Asian women were largely dependent on men.
After talking to the women and providing them information about the public services available to them, Pandya told India-West that she found out that some women were undocumented, worked for low wages and were survivors of domestic violence.
“I was interested in speaking to a lawyer to use VAWA to help them get on their own path to a green card and citizenship. If a woman is a survivor of violence, she can apply to have a green card on her own merit — not as the spouse of someone,” Pandya said, adding that many South Asian immigrant women who are exposed to domestic violence and abuse have difficulty speaking out because of their non-citizen status.
“If (a partner) is abusing her, she has to bear that situation because otherwise if she leaves him, she’ll be here illegally,” Pandya said. “That hold on a woman who is exposed to that situation is huge, because without legal status in this country, there are so many things you can’t access. It sort of perpetuates the violence — the desperation that comes with wanting immigration status.”
Immigration and employment attorney Avantika Rao, a child-abuse victim, told India-West she grew up in an Indian American immigrant household in Los Angeles before VAWA existed. She said she sought assistance from a trusted white male teacher, but he did not refer her to outside resources, but instead told her it was “normal for Asian males to use violence to resolve conflicts.” The teacher advised her to put up with the violence until she could move away to college, Rao said.
“Prior to the passage of VAWA in 1994, there were far fewer culturally competent services addressing the needs of the diverse set of people seeking to recover and reclaim their lives after exiting a violent or abusive relationship,” she said in an e-mail.
Rao added that VAWA “advances the rights of crime victims and enables the criminal justice system to increase its outreach to minority communities.”
Maitri, a San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit that assists victims of domestic violence, abuse and human trafficking, said that in 2012 it received 269 crisis calls and 1,048 client calls, according to Maitri outreach coordinator Nandini Ray.
Ray told India-West that domestic violence in the South Asian community is often underreported due to the stigma involved in airing personal conflicts publicly.
Ray said this can be attributed to “language barriers, cultural constraints, guilt, shame, fear of being ostracized by the community, the lack of trust in law enforcement.”
“For many South Asian immigrant women, the only means of societal and financial support is (through a) husband. Many of these women are a dependent (on a) H-4 visa, so they cannot legally work here and they face a constant threat of deportation by the abuser.”