Some victims, it seems, are more worthy than other victims. This is the clear message sent by a deeply flawed version of the Violence Against Women Act that is headed for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But our faith dictates that such a dichotomy—worthy and unworthy—cannot be allowed.
VAWA, as the act has been known since it was first passed in 1994, represents years of progress and bipartisan commitment on the part of Congress to protect victims of violence. But the version up for reauthorization in the House of Representatives, H.R. 4970, would roll back VAWA’s existing protections for battered immigrants leaving them more vulnerable —and in some cases, endangering their lives.
In other words, Congress decided nearly two decades ago not to create a class of “unworthy” victims—people forced to endure violence simply because they don’t have the paperwork to prevent it.
All of that is now under threat. For starters, H.R. 4970 would undercut humanitarian visa programs enacted to help protect victims of crime and domestic violence, and deny crime victims one important path to adjusting their immigration status provided under current law. Furthermore, the bill’s provisions would deter victims from cooperating with law enforcement and hold victims of abuse to a higher standard than other applicants for immigration benefits.
In short, H.R. 4970 will deny victims many of the very protections first created by VAWA, and even help perpetrate the abuse from which they are seeking to escape.
Based on our experience at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, I can tell you that people who lack U.S. citizenship deserve fundamental protection just like any other person. If they come here seeking refuge, they likely already know violence far too well. It is scandalous for this great country that has lifted up the oppressed and been a champion of human rights to consider revoking lifesaving protection immigrant women who suffered abuse and violence by deeming them unworthy victims.
The morality issuing from our faith demands that we recognize all such victims as worthy. This was brought home to me forcefully, listening to the testimony of an immigrant mother known only as “Erika” to protect her identity. In a press teleconference on H.R. 4970 in which LIRS was a presenter, Erika recounted how she was able to leave her abusive husband thanks to VAWA. We cannot stand by while other Erikas are stripped of protection, to suffer, and perhaps die, at the hands of abusers.
By passing H.R. 4970, the House of Representatives would do more than unravel almost two decades of laudable bipartisan support for immigrant victims of violence. H.R. 4970 would dishonor our country’s legacy of protecting the most vulnerable, smash progress made towards shielding victims from their abusers, and cost the lives of immigrant women. We should expect our members of Congress to show greater wisdom than that.
Linda Hartke is president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national organization headquartered in Baltimore that since its founding 73 years ago has helped nearly 380,000 immigrants rebuild their lives in America. LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership advocating on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration and other vulnerable populations, and for providing services to migrants through over 60 grassroots legal and social service partners across the United States.