The Common Good

Mothers, Violence and the House GOP

Two major days are coming up: 1) for those without TVs or calendars, Mother’s Day is May 13, and 2) within the next couple of weeks the House of Representatives is expected to vote on its version of the Violence Against Women Act. The convergence of these two days begs the question: Which mothers are worthy of our protection from violence? 

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
House Republicans' news conference on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in April. Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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Most people believe their own mothers are worthy of protection. Who could imagine mom being slapped, beaten, or serially raped by a family member or domestic partner and could, at the same time, block legal protections against the abuse? Not many. 

No matter how they have fared as mothers—no matter how giving, kind, or nurturing—no matter how much their mistakes have driven us to psychiatrists’ couches—no matter what, they are our mothers. We see the good, the bad, and the ugly. We see the noble and the ignoble. We see the spirit and the flesh. And, yet, when we look deeply into our mothers’ eyes we see the beauty and power of grace; their grace offered to us and our grace offered to them.

And so their abuse is unthinkable …and the thought that their abuse would be deemed unworthy of protection by the state—for any reason—is unconscionable.

Why, then, is the House GOP insisting on a scaled down version of the bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act that the Senate reauthorized with bipartisan support in April? Because they have decided certain women are worth protecting and others are not.

When originally passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act provided $1.6 billion for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. It also mandated restitution for violent crimes, allowed for civil redress in cases where prosecutors decided not to take the case to court, and established the Office of Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. The bill was reauthorized without fanfare and with bipartisan support in 2000 and again in 2005. But in an election year, and the legislation has come up for reauthorization in the context of a deeply polarized and ideologically entrenched Congress.  

The Senate version of VAWA extends protections to three groups previously excluded from the right to protection: battered Native American women, battered undocumented immigrants and battered members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community. House Republicans claim the inclusion of these groups is an election-year ploy by Democrats to make them take legislative action against women, thus feeding the perception that the GOP is waging a war on women. Maybe. But there is a deeper question: regardless of the politics, what could lead anyone to overlook the abuse of any woman—especially some of the most vulnerable women in our land? 

Native American Victims

House Republicans say they want to block Native American women from protection because the VAWA would allow tribal courts to prosecute non-native abusers in their courts. What’s wrong with that? According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), 34 percent of American Indian and Alaskan women will be raped in their lifetime and 39 percent will experience domestic violence. And Native American women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average. 

In an April 22 interview on Melissa Harris-Perry, Jacqueline Pata of the NCAI explained that sovereign Native American nations currently have no jurisdiction over non-native people who choose to live on their tribal lands. Over 50 percent of native women are married to or co-habiting with non-native men on native lands. These women currently have little-to-no recourse when their partners become abusers. This is not right. Within the last century, Native Americans have suffered ethnic cleansing, forced migration and abusive schooling systems at the hands of non-natives. It is not too much to ask that native women be empowered to prosecute abuse when it enters their own home.

Undocumented Immigrant Victims

The House GOP version of VAWA removes provisions for undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status—a provision that was already a part of the original act. This provision helps undocumented abused women (many of whom are mothers) to self-apply for legal status. Matthew Soerens of World Relief recently explained in an email statement that abusive husbands who are citizens often keep their wives undocumented in order to perpetrate abuse without recourse. They also threaten deportation if the wife goes to the police. The House GOP version of the bill would require that husbands be notified when their abused wives apply for citizenship. 

Soerens also explained a second change in the provision:

“The proposed changes would also eliminate the beneficiary of a U visa from applying for Lawful Permanent Residence, as current law allows them to do.  U visas are granted to victims of certain crimes who help the police or the District Attorney in the prosecution of a crime, including domestic violence and human trafficking. They’re one of the best tools we have legally for helping victims of human trafficking within the U.S. If they no longer lead to permanent legal status, I fear that it will be much harder to convince trafficking victims to testify against their captors (already difficult, because they’re so afraid) because they won’t have the promise of permanent safety in the US.” 

In a follow-up phone interview, Soerens added, “The House change in U visas is a gift to traffickers.”

This is not right. While it is true that these women got here illegally, their status is not a criminal offense. It is a civil one. The House GOP version effectively exacerbates true criminal behavior in traffickers and acts of violence from abusive spouses in the name of discouraging civil infractions.

LGBT Victims

The Senate version of the bill explicitly says domestic violence shelters cannot discriminate against LGBT people. The House GOP version has removed that provision. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) explained his own distain for the legislation during a Senate Judiciary Committee panel. He said he didn’t believe discrimination in shelters is an issue. A study conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) found that in 2010, 44.6 percent of LGBT/HIV-positive survivors of domestic violence were turned away from shelters. Likewise, they found that 54.4 percent of survivors were denied orders of protection from their assailant. 

This is not right. Every person is made in the image of God and therefore is worthy of equal protection of the law. Yet, the House GOP version of the bill removes that guarantee from a whole class of American citizens.

This is not a fight between Republicans and Democrats. Both sides helped pass the Senate version of the reauthorization bill in a vote of 68-31, which included 15 Republicans. This fight is being waged within the House of Representatives by extremists who currently rule the agenda of their chosen party. 

As Mother’s Day and the House vote on the reauthorization bill both approach, please pray. This is not just any vote in congress. This vote will affect the real lives, families, and health of women and mothers across our country. On Mother’s Day, send up a prayer for your own mother and send up a prayer for the “least of these”—the Native American, the undocumented immigrant, and the LGBT mothers and women whose lives could be so blessed or so cursed by this vote.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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