October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and this year the Violence Against Women Act, which provides immigrant women with legal protections, is up for reauthorization by Congress. As that process unfolds, an immigration enforcement bill that would limit the federal government’s freedom to assist undocumented domestic violence victims is being considered in the House.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the Violence Against Women Act (known as VAWA) “should be swiftly reauthorized to ensure the continuation of these vital, lifesaving programs and laws.” The Network adds that VAWA “creates and supports comprehensive, effective, and cost saving responses to the crimes of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.” The law is administered by the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services.
But a GOP immigration enforcement bill now being considered in the House could limit the federal government’s ability to assist undocumented domestic violence victims.
Michelle Ortiz — the supervising attorney of Lucha, a unit within Americans for Immigrant Justice, formerly the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center — told The Florida Independent that the Hinder the Administration Legalization Temptation Act, an immigration enforcement bill filed by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would undermine existing immigration law by removing prosecutorial discretion and deferred action, two components that protect undocumented domestic victimes.
“Under the Violence Against Women Act, which has existed for 15 years, there have been specific protections for victims of domestic violence,” Michelle Ortiz said, “particularly for people who self-petition, who are victims of domestic violence at the hands of a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident.”
Smith’s Hinder the Administration Legalization Temptation Act (better known as the HALT Act) would force immigration authorities to deport victims of domestic violence who reach out for help.
Sarah Van Hofwegen, a staff attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice who visits immigrant detainees, tells the Independent that “HALT would create an even bigger climate of fear for immigrants.”
“People will be less willing to report crimes against them for fear of ending up in custody,” she says. “I think there a lot of immigrant women who are victims of crime and are not getting the service they need and are not reporting the crimes against them.”
“I see high numbers of women who are victims of domestic violence and end up in the immigration system, through a variety of ways, in the Broward Transition Center, the lowest-security facility in South Florida,” Van Hofwegen says. “So it’s people with mimor criminal convictions.”
Broward Transition Center is managed by The GEO Group, one of the world’s largest private prison and detention companies.
Van Hofwegen also says she visits women “who have come to the United States, fleeing their abuser in their home country.”
“People can’t be denied legal services,” Van Hofwegen says, “but it is harder to get legal services when they are in detention because the centers are far away, also because there is not as much pro bono services available. Americans for Immigrant Justice is the only organization that is working out of Broward Transition Center, and other detention centers like Glades County detention center have very little pro bono services, so people who can’t afford attorneys and don’t have ways to contact them are getting legal assistance.”
Van Hofwegen adds that the majority of women she represents are Latina and Haitian, but there are women from other countries. Some are are young, some are married and some are not married to their abusers.
Legal Momentum, a women’s legal defense and education fund, writes that “immigrant women are more likely to confront poverty, violence and exploitation than any other demographic in America.”
The HALT Act is cosponsored by Florida Republicans Vern Buchanan, Jeff Miller, Richard Nugent, Dennis Ross and C.W. Bill Young.