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Immigrants and the Violence Against Women Act: Two key components

Photo by European Parliament/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In recent days, a battle over renewal of the Violence Against Women Act has become increasingly partisan and increasingly heated.

There are two competing versions of a bill to renew the 1994 federal law. One, approved by the Senate, would expand some ways in which immigrants and other abuse victims are protected. The opposing House version, approved this week, proposes rolling back protections for several groups, including gay, lesbian and transgender victims, as well as immigrants.

And while proponents of the House bill say their goal is to prevent fraud, it's the rollbacks that have caused the biggest outcry in recent days, with advocates for women, immigrants, LGBT victims and others saying such changes will only make victims more vulnerable.

It's a broad piece of legislation, but here are two of the critical aspects of VAWA that apply to immigrants and which are being challenged:

The self-petition process: As it stands, a key component of The Violence Against Women Act allows battered immigrants to petition for legal status without having to rely on an abusive U.S. citizen or legal resident spouse or other relative to sponsor them. "For many immigrant victims of domestic violence, battery and extreme cruelty, the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident family members who would sponsor their applications will threaten to withhold legal immigration sponsorship as a tool of abuse," read the guidelines from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "The purpose of the VAWA program is to allow victims the opportunity to 'self-petition' or independently seek legal immigration status in the U.S."

The House Republican sponsored reauthorization bill proposes a more public approach, in which immigration agents would contact the alleged abusers to provide evidence. The adjudication process for the victim's immigration case would also change, with the resolution of these cases tied to the investigation into or prosecution of the abuser. Critics say this not only strips away the protection of confidentiality for abuse victims, but hands more power to the abuser while putting the victims at risk for further abuse.

The U-Visa: Victims of certain crimes, including those who have endured substantial physical or mental abuse as a result, are eligible for a special victims' visa called the U-Visa. The visa grants these individuals protection and temporary legal status in the United States. Only 10,000 visas are granted a year, although people can remain on a waiting lists if the cap is met. As it stands now, the visa only lasts four years, but by the third, the person can seek permanent legal status.

The House version of the VAWA reauthorization would restrict the the permanent legal status aspect, keeping the visa temporary. The permanent status component is a key incentive for many undocumented crime victims, already fearful of authorities, to step forward and report a crime.

There are other wrinkles to the immigration-related battle over VAWA, including the involvement of a so-called "mail order bride" company involved in the lobbying.

The next step is for the House and Senate to reconcile the two bills' dramatically different provision; for its part, the White House has threatened to veto the House version if it wins out.