Commentary
By Jenna Barnett 1-09-2019

In Donald Trump’s address to the nation last night, meant to emphasize his desire for a physical barrier to close off the southern border, he stated, “Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system.” He referenced high rates of sexual assault on the journeys up the southern border and the brutal rape and murder of a California resident by an undocumented immigrant and a U.S. citizen (though he failed to highlight the latter assailant).

I agree with Trump that women and children are the biggest victims of the broken system, though not in all the ways that he had in mind.

Our broken system has victimized women and children with tear gas, separation, and cages. Our broken system has tried to deny asylum for those fleeing gang violence and domestic abuse. Our broken system has turned children like Jakeelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Alonzo Gomez, into martyrs for a more welcoming world.

I am not afraid of the people crossing the border. After all, studies have shown that the arrest rate for undocumented immigrants in Texas is 40 percent below that of native-born Americans. But I am concerned about what will happen to our country if the administration continues to force-feed fear of our neighbors into the national discourse with sensationalized Oval Office addresses. And I am terribly afraid of what will happen to our domestic violence shelters and coalitions if this government shutdown persists much longer.

Largely due to the government shutdown, the Violence Against Women Act has expired for the second time in 25 years. VAWA is the single most important legislation for providing protections and funding for domestic violence relief and prevention. While funding was solidified back in September for this fiscal year, there are many unknowns causing anxiety in domestic violence coalitions across the country. Shelters and other victim services are funded through a patchwork of sources, from the Department of Justice, to local donors, to the Department of Health and Human Services. The shutdown halts the distribution of reimbursements and new grants, causing many coalitions to lean on their limited reserves. Shelters and organizations in Arkansas, for instance, are preparing to close doors, pause services, and lay off employees.

Given that on an average day, 40,000 victims of domestic violence seek safety at shelters, a sustained shutdown would be life-threatening. The Office of Violence Against Women will remain open through Jan. 18. If the shutdown persists beyond that date, staff will likely be furloughed and grantees could be left scrambling.

These are the impacts of a shutdown that lasts for mere weeks. Meanwhile, Trump has warned that he is prepared for the shutdown to last years.

If the shutdown continues into February and March, millions of Americans could face food-security risks as the remaining federal funding dwindles for food stamps and WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

Near the beginning of last night’s address, Trump had harsh words for those who would exploit the struggles of young migrants on their journeys: “These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs.”

His word choice rang oddly similar to the rhetoric of federal workers and other Americans whose finances and safety are directly impacted by the shutdown. CBS News correspondent Carter Evans watched the speeches yesterday evening with furloughed workers, including Leisyka Parrott who works for the Bureau of Land Management. She's a single mother with $800 left in the bank.

"[I] definitely feel like a pawn in a game that I don't agree with … but yeah, I definitely feel stuck, and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it," Parrott said.

For those feeling similarly stuck, consider urging the administration to act and reaching out to your local domestic violence coalitions, asking how you or your church can support them during this time of uncertainty.

Jenna Barnett is the Women and Girls Campaign Coordinator for Sojourners.

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