Speaking of Women's Rights: Women’s rights + immigrants’ rights = inseparable

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Women’s rights + immigrants’ rights = inseparable

by Becky Pogany

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is outrageously easy to support – or at least, it should be.  VAWA protects all women living in the U.S. from harm.  It provides programs and services for survivors of violence: rape crisis centers, hotlines, legal aid, and protection from eviction, among other things. 

VAWA also illustrates an important link between women’s rights and immigrant rights.  Fearing retribution by both their abusers and immigration authorities, immigrant women are far less likely to speak up and seek help. By providing special attention to the difficult situation faced by immigrant women who are victims of violence,  VAWA makes it possible for thousands of immigrant women to escape dangerous, violent situations every year. 

VAWA is the compassionate heart of our country’s efforts to protect women’s basic human right to safety, and Congress renewed it in both 2000 and 2005.  So why is it in danger of not being renewed again this year?

Immigrant women who survive serious crimes (domestic violence, rape, torture) and who help law enforcement investigate and prosecute those crimes can get a special form of protection through VAWA, called a U visa.  This allows women to testify against their attackers without fear of negative immigration consequences; it also grants them legal status and work eligibility.

Earlier this year, conservative House Republicans moved to block VAWA’s reauthorization because they objected to these protections for immigrant women; they also objected to protections for same-sex couples.

VAWA’s U visa provision is a rare expression of one our county’s highest values: that protecting women’s lives and bringing domestic violence criminals to justice are paramount, regardless of immigration status.  In a landscape of increasingly restrictive immigration laws across the country, VAWA upholds and honors the contributions of immigrant women to our society.

Why worry about this now? A resolution may not come until after the November general election, but that doesn’t change the fact that thousands of immigrant women urgently need the protections VAWA has provided for many years.  Women have been in limbo since late August, when the last of the 10,000 U visas available annually was approved.  This is the third year in a row we have hit this ceiling, and the earliest date that U visas have ever run out.  Clearly this is a much-needed and well-utilized protection that benefits the women who receive it AND the law enforcement efforts they assist.

There is urgent need for protection for women like Juana Villegas:

“In July 2008, a routine police stop … triggered Villegas’ arrest for a traffic violation and not having a driver’s license. Villegas was an undocumented immigrant. The charges were later dropped. Two days after her arrest, authorities shackled her wrists and ankles during an ambulance ride to a hospital, shortly before she went into labor.”

Villegas is currently awaiting approval for her U visa.  (Legal Voice fought successfully against the practice of shackling of pregnant & laboring women in Washington state.)

Advocates are not letting VAWA fall by the wayside.  As Washington Senator Maria Cantwell said, “We're mad, and we're tired of it.”   Women’s rights and immigrants’ rights are (and should be!) a bipartisan issue – so it’s encouraging to see Republican Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff team up with Democratic Maryland attorney general Doug Gansler to demand VAWA’s reauthorization with expanded protections for immigrant women: “All women who have lived through violence and abuse should have the certainty that the law will protect them — no matter their race, creed, color, religion or immigration status.”

Let’s continue joining our movements together to support immigrant women.  This important women’s and immigrants’ rights legislation deserves our focused attention and spirited defense.  United, advocates for women’s and immigrants’ rights can make the biggest impact on preserving the right to be safe.

Becky Pogany is on staff at OneAmerica, Washington State’s largest immigrant rights advocacy organization.  She’s also a Legal Voice volunteer, former staff member, and megafan.

Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives