Immigrants Need the Violence Against Women Act -- Let's Stop Blaming the Victims

In the case of countless battered women across the country, the law exists not to protect them but to protect their abusers.
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When I listened to the testimony yesterday of Ms. Antonia Peña, a domestic worker who volunteers at Casa de Maryland, I heard a story I've heard many times that never fails to affect me. Her friend Maria, who was born in El Salvador and has a two-year-old daughter, was in an abusive relationship. Because of her immigration status, coming forward led to legal retaliation against her. In her case, and in those of countless other women across the country, the law existed not to protect her but to protect her abuser. She was literally trapped in her own family and her own home. The status quo made it difficult for her to seek shelter for herself and her daughter, and she is currently fighting deportation proceedings. The crimes against her -- violence, threats, intimidation -- continued for months. Law enforcement, rather than sending her to El Salvador, should have opened a Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) protection case on her behalf.

Even abused women, if they are undocumented, will often be punished with deportation and imprisonment if they go to the police for help. Where it is in the public interest to remove criminals and dangerous individuals, we should do so -- and we are. But the public interest is also best served when we protect abused women and help children lead healthy lives. When Congress reauthorizes VAWA later this year, maintaining legal protections for battered immigrant women needs to be a priority. Some protections already exist: abused women are able to adjust their immigrant status independently of a spouse's sponsorship if an abusive relationship can be proved. But even this crucial protection is often overlooked, especially when Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice officials carry out crackdowns or operations with local partners unaware of VAWA's language on immigrants.

This issue cannot and must not become an occasion for demagogues to spin their wheels. Abusive relationships are not a political issue -- they're a public health and human rights issue. Making sure women don't have to suffer beatings in silence, whatever their immigration status, has to be a priority. No one deserves to be beaten. No child deserves to grow up in an abusive environment. Whatever other laws may apply to a family's situation, VAWA must ensure that abuse cannot continue in silence.

I was proud to listen to the testimony Ms. Peña and our other witnesses offered yesterday. Yesterday was one of the strongest displays I've ever seen of why VAWA and other federal laws and regulations must play a central role in our thinking. There will be many opportunities to highlight the ways federal lawmakers can better protect immigrants, women, mothers and children. But I will remember what I heard on Feb. 10 very clearly.

Below is the video of Ms. Peña's testimony:

For part two of the hearing, featuring Rev. Linda Olson Peebles of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington and Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, visit this link. For part three, featuring Leslye Orloff of Legal Momentum, visit this link.

This blog is part of the Peaceful Revolution series that explores innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with, read a new post here each week.

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