Victims Unprotected

The House’s Immigrant Betrayal With New Violence Against Women Act

The retooled Violence Against Women Act guts protections for immigrant victims. By Michelle Goldberg.

Jahi Chikwendiu, The Washington Post / Getty Images

Mony Ruiz-Velasco, director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, has been representing immigrant victims of domestic violence for 15 years. In all of the hundreds of cases she has worked on, she says, “I’ve never had a case where the abuser did not use his immigration status as a tool.” Often an abusive American citizen or permanent resident with an immigrant wife will threaten her with deportation, which could separate her from her American children. Or he’ll begin the paperwork to sponsor his spouse for a green card but threaten to withdraw it. “You have no rights in this country,” an abuser will tell his victim, says Ruiz-Velasco.

The Violence Against Women Act offers these women some protection. But on Wednesday, House Republicans passed a reauthorization bill that significantly weakens it, claiming that VAWA facilitates immigration fraud. “For those of us who’ve been in the antiviolence movement for the last 30 years, some of the biggest victories are being completely turned on their head by what’s going on,” says Mallika Dutt, president and CEO of Breakthrough, a human-rights organization that has worked closely with immigrant victims of violence.

The White House has threatened to veto the House’s version of the VAWA reauthorization bill, which removes protections for Native Americans and for gays and lesbians written into the Senate version of the bill that passed with 68 votes in April. But the most startling thing about the House version, and its most significant departure from current law, is its elimination of long-standing protections for abused immigrants.

It’s not entirely clear why the House is so determined to gut VAWA. The immigrant protection provisions have broad backing—they’re supported not just by the National Organization for Women but by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals. The groups that oppose them, on the other hand, are fairly marginal. “[T]he few supporters of the House Republican bill we know of include anti-immigrant organizations, groups that purport to represent the interests of men accused of domestic violence and one international marriage brokerage company reported to have a financial incentive in eliminating protections for ‘mail order brides,’” wrote Reps. John Conyers and Zoe Lofgren in a recent op-ed.

Indeed, two of the groups that have been most active in lobbying for changes to VAWA’s immigrant protections, Voices of American Immigration Fraud Victims and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, are connected to the mail-order bride business. Both were cofounded by Natasha Spivack, owner of Encounters International, which matches American men with Russian and Ukrainian women. (Laura Bassett first reported on Spivack’s involvement last week in The Huffington Post.) “The concepts that are in this recent version of VAWA are the concepts that we—especially Voice of American Immigration Fraud Victims—were lobbying for for several years,” says Spivack, who says her groups are in regular contact with lawmakers.

Spivack has a vested interest in weakening VAWA. In 2006 a Ukrainian woman named Nataliya Fox, who Spivack paired with an abusive man named James Fox, successfully sued her for $433,500. Part of Fox’s suit claimed that Spivack had withheld information about how she might escape the marriage without facing deportation. “Of course we all know that not all courts resolve matters in a fair, factual way,” says Spivack, who insists that Nataliya Fox was a liar who took advantage of VAWA to work the immigration system. Ever since, she’s been determined to change American law.

Usually, U.S. citizens or green-card holders who marry immigrant women sponsor them for permanent residency. When spouses are abusive, though, VAWA allows immigrants to petition for residency on their own. The House bill throws up a series of obstacles to these victims. Right now, VAWA immigration petitions are handled by a specialized unit with extensive training in domestic violence. The House bill would turn them over to local immigration offices. There, according to Jeanne Smoot, director of public policy for the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization that serves immigrant women fleeing violence, waits for interviews can be as long as 10 months. (The Tahirih Justice Center has long been a foe of Spivack’s; it provided representation to Nataliya Fox and several other women who claimed abuse by Spivack’s clients.)

During that wait, women would have few legal protections. “In the period of time between a woman making an application for self-petition and the time it’s granted, she is tremendously vulnerable to the abuser taking steps to get her deported,” says Smoot.

Making things worse, the House bill would require immigration authorities to put VAWA petitions on hold until other related legal cases are settled. This puts women in a Catch-22. If an immigrant mother is battling for custody, her chances may hinge on her immigration status, which she would get through her VAWA proceedings. Her VAWA claim, though, couldn’t be decided until her custody case is settled. Similarly, a woman may be reluctant to testify in an abuse case if she can’t be assured of not being deported afterward, but dropping the case could work against her immigration claim.

Abused spouses of legal residents aren’t the only immigrant women would be hurt by the House’s version of VAWA. Right now, some women who have been subject to rape and battery can qualify for U Visas, which are available for immigrant crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. The House bill would limit such visas to victims of crimes either actively under investigation or currently being prosecuted. Some victims, says Smoot, could get caught in the no-man’s land between investigation and prosecution. In those cases, she says, “That woman has exposed herself to her abuser and exposed herself to possible deportation by coming forward.”

Already, says Ruiz-Velasco, “there are cases of victims calling law enforcement for protection and the victim being arrested,” particularly in states with harsh immigration laws, such as Arizona and Alabama. The House bill would exacerbate this. If it passes, she says, “it would be very, very hard for me to advise clients to apply for protection.”

The Senate, of course, is not going to adopt the House bill. But advocates for abused women fear that House Republicans will succeed in at least partially shaping the law that comes out of reconciliation. “There are different levels of worrying about this,” says Ruiz-Velasco. “One of the most basic levels is that VAWA had always been bipartisan, and for first time, it’s really being used as a tool of this anti-immigrant, anti-woman agenda. We’re also concerned about the message that Congress is sending by saying it’s OK not to protect immigrant victims and even to revoke existing protections. This is a very, very vulnerable group of people that we’re talking about.”

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Spivack, meanwhile, continues to promise her American clients docile, submissive partners. “As wives,” the Encounters International website promises, “they desire to build a loving home, follow their husband's lead, and stick with the marriage, even when times get tough and things stop being ‘fun.’” That’s an easier promise to keep if they have no choice.