Gendered Laws: VAWA, IRCA and the Future of Immigration Reform

A lesser-known fact of the Violence Against Women Act is that it provides a temporary visa and creates a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who are the victims of domestic abuse.
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The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized last week as the House finally passed the bill and sent it to the president's desk. Since its inception in 1994, VAWA has been key in the battle to stop domestic violence by providing support for victims -- helping create a national prevention hotline, funding shelters -- and facilitating the prosecution of perpetrators -- creating federal statutes and promoting police investigation and interstate cooperation.

A lesser-known fact however, is the VAWA provides a temporary visa and creates a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who are the victims of domestic abuse. The idea being that undocumented immigrants who are subject to domestic violence don't report it for fear of being deported or are abused through the threat of deportation. As a result, VAWA has been a useful tool for undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows by both speaking out against their abusers and securing legal status.

As would be expected, the reauthorization of this key law has been celebrated by women's and immigrant rights groups. Its provisions have helped bridge these two movements and highlight the connections between the marginalizing experiences of being a woman and being an undocumented immigrant. While the passage of this act and the cooperation it fosters is clearly a win for all involved, there are a few limitations.

First, VAWA frames domestic violence as something that is exclusively faced by women. While it protects individuals regardless of gender, its title, and the popular perception of the bill, suggests that it is meant to support women. However, a significant number of men are victims of domestic violence and their needs should also be acknowledged.

During my research in the undocumented community, I have spoken to a few undocumented men who are victims of domestic abuse. One man, who I call Pablo, explained to me that he was uncomfortable in his living situations with his citizen partner because she "has the power to deport me." While the relationship was not physically abusive, he talked at length about how she was "possessive." At times, when they disagreed, she would turn have the Internet or the cable turned off until he would defer to her; because she was a citizen and he was not, the bills were in her name and he could do nothing. He feared that if she got angry enough she could call the police and have him deported for simply disagreeing with her. As this continued, he became "afraid to argue with her."

The popular perception that domestic violence is a women's issue dissuaded Pablo, and likely other men, from perceiving this as abuse, let alone reporting it. As a result, VAWA serves to further support this gendered stereotype of domestic violence. While its statutes protect men, its name genders the law. In this case the law depends on an assumption that women are victims of domestic violence, ignoring the needs of men and the intersection of gender and legal status power relations that may play out within mixed status families.

While legislators have sought to pay attention to gender, highlighting the needs of undocumented women and children in abusive situations, focusing on women oversimplifies the situation and leaves out vulnerable undocumented men. This effectively limits VAWA's potential reach, as men, like Pablo, do not realize that they can avail themselves of it.

Secondly, VAWA forces undocumented immigrants, desperate for legal status, to frame their experiences in a certain way in order to take advantage of this legalization opportunity. I recently spoke to two women we were considering applying for legal status through VAWA - Edith who witnessed her parents' physically abusive relationship while personally receiving emotional abuse and Norma who had just left a ten year relationship with her abusive husband. When discussing their lives both women declared that their life goals revolved around receiving legal status. Knowing that VAWA provided the only opportunity for legalization, they were seriously considering applying. However, Edith was afraid that this would jeopardize her relationship with her father (which had progressed since her parents divorce) and harm her relationship with her two sisters who lived with her father. Similarly, Norma worried about how this would affect her children, saying "I just don't want my kids to be saying later, 'Why did you do this to my dad?'"

This suggests that while VAWA, and its legalization provisions are important, there is a strong need for a larger pathway to legalization so that undocumented immigrants will not be forced to choose this pathway. For instance, if a pathway to legalization is created, Edith and Norma will be able to legalize without dredging up their past or disrupting the peace that they have been able to bring back to their lives.

As a gendered domestic violence law, VAWA has over-focused on gender and created a very narrow pathway to legalization. This presents a problem to undocumented immigrant communities as it leaves out undocumented men and forces undocumented women to fit themselves into its limited provisions in order to legalize.

However, not focusing of gender is equally damaging as we learned with IRCA's amnesty in the late 1980s. In the case of IRCA, a lack of attention to gendered differences in the private and public lives of undocumented men and women meant that undocumented women were less able to legalize. Specifically, IRCA required undocumented immigrants to prove their work status and length of time in the U.S. This was a lot harder for undocumented women to do because they tended to work in private homes as housekeepers and nannies - where their employers did not want to confirm their employment -- and did not have bills or accounts in their names -- because this was their husband's responsibility.

Thus, there is a danger in both over focusing and not focusing on gender. We need to keep this in mind as we develop immigration laws and future pathways to legalization. Bouncing between unintentionally gendered laws like IRCA and intentionally gendered laws like VAWA is not an effective way for dealing with the gendered aspects of undocumented immigrants lives. We need policies that meet the needs of all individuals. This may mean re-framing a domestic violence legalization policy in non-specific gendered terms or organizing legalization policies in a way that do not privilege the public lives of men.

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