In the era of #MeToo, as we hear about so many survivors of sexual assault from many different walks of life, the spotlight should shine on immigrant survivors of violence as well. But their voices are instead being stifled, silenced, and overlooked. To be sure, the United States has come a long way in providing humanitarian protection for immigrant survivors of gender-based violence, but new policies and practices pose a serious threat and serve to muzzle survivors, who increasingly fear deportation as a consequence of coming forward to seek justice.
In 1994, Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a critical law in America’s fight to end domestic abuse, sexual assault, and related gender-based violence. Practically, VAWA provides critical funding for programs to assist survivors of violence in reaching hotlines and crisis centers, accessing legal aid, and holding perpetrators accountable. Among the critical legal protections in VAWA and its subsequent re-authorizations are the Self-Petition and the Battered Spouse Waiver for survivors of physical abuse and extreme cruelty at the hands of U.S. citizens or green card holders, the U visa for survivors of certain crimes, and the T visa for survivors of human trafficking. Symbolically, VAWA demonstrates our government’s recognition that immigrant survivors of violence face unique vulnerabilities to violence and barriers to seeking safety such as language, education, culture, access to public services, isolation from family or other support networks, and familiarity with the system. Most importantly, VAWA stands as a sign of our collective recognition that perpetrators of violence too often use their victims’ fear of deportation to manipulate and control them.
VAWA, however, must be renewed every five years, and we are currently amidst a congressional battle for re-authorization. At the Tahirih Justice Center, we believe that protecting survivors of violence should not be a partisan issue. Based on over 22 years of serving immigrant women we know that our clients are especially susceptible as they navigate an already-complex and ever-changing immigration process.
Unfortunately, because of policy changes that began with the 2017 Executive Orders, VAWA is being undermined. Today, three out of four advocates report that immigrant survivors have concerns about going to court for a matter related to their abuser. We can and must do better for the women whose safety depends on protections like VAWA. As we uncover and dismantle obstructions to women’s rights through the #MeToo movement, we must also ensure that the rights of immigrant women are lifted out of marginalization. That is why #ImmigrantWomenToo was launched by advocates to uplift the stories of immigrant women who turn to the U.S. for safety and justice.
VAWA is not the only humanitarian protection being undermined. Attempting to slam the door to justice on survivors of domestic violence, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions called on asylum officers and Immigration Judges to “generally” deny claims from immigrants fleeing from gang and domestic violence in Matter of A-B-. The decision cuts at our core mission of equality and dignity at Tahirih, defies fundamental principles of justice, and contradicts who we are as a nation. It means that women and girls who cannot get justice in their own countries, who have fled for their lives, and who are relying on the U.S.’s adherence to international legal standards could be sent back to face abuse and death. Fortunately, advocates were able to reverse some of the damage at the end of 2018 in Grace v Whitaker. While the Grace decision specifically overturned harmful USCIS reliance on A-B- in credible fear interviews, it also shone a light on how flawed the underlying legal analysis in A-B- was, and should be cited to in other arenas. We must continue to leverage our legal system to protect immigrant women as they face unprecedented threats.
In June 2018, the enforcement of a “zero-tolerance policy,” challenged women’s parental rights to an unprecedented degree, quite literally tearing children from their mothers’ arms. This policy occurred under the guise of a response to what has been a manufactured crisis at our border. As we celebrate Women’s History Month and as Mother’s Day approaches, let us not forget the immigrant women who have fought and continue to fight for the undeniable right to be reunified with their children. In their honor, we must continue to push for more humane responses and insist that our government put an immediate and permanent end to such practices which have long-term consequences on both a mother’s and child’s physical and mental health.
Today, we are watching an unprecedented attack on immigrant women’s rights happening through prosecutions, detentions, border closures, legal decisions, etc. – it’s a patchwork that must be looked at as a whole. Collectively, these attacks contribute to a climate of fear that denies immigrant survivors of violence a bridge to safety and justice. It is time that we all unite behind the move to recognize and address the plight of #ImmigrantWomenToo.