Commentary: Violence Against Women Act must also protect immigrants

The Miami HeraldMay 8, 2012 

Sandy Adams was a high school dropout married at 18 to a man she describes as a “violent alcoholic,” but she later mustered the courage to grab her 3-year-old daughter and flee from her Jacksonville home.

It took years and extraordinary effort to rebuild her life, but Adams earned her GED while working low-wage jobs, enrolled in the police academy and went to work for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

After her second husband died during a helicopter search for shooting suspects, Adams turned to politics as a way to help victims on the legislative end, winning a seat in the Florida Legislature in 2002.

She was successful right away; her first bill kept the photos of rape victims away from public view.

Now a freshman member of Congress, the Republican from Central Florida is telling her story as she presses in the House for renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. In the books for the past 30 years, the law provides special protections to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

But while the Senate has passed a version of the act that confers protection on all, including immigrants, gays and lesbians and Native Americans, the House version sponsored by Adams has provisions that undermine the cases of immigrant victims, according to a coalition of national rights groups that have analyzed Adams’ bill.

Given her own experience with abuse, it’s tough to understand why Adams would deny the protections that have existed since 1994 for immigrant survivors of violence and abuse.

But here’s a clue: She was elected with the help of Tea Party voters, notable for blaming America’s problems on immigrants instead of looking inward.

Adams has said that her bill provides equal protection for everyone.

But that’s not true, says the Miami-based non-profit Americans for Immigrant Justice.

Adams’ House Bill 4970 does away with essential elements of protection and weakens others.

It would severely restrict, for example, the issuing of a U Visa, a little-known and already difficult to obtain visa given to crime victims who are undocumented so that they can report and help prosecute without fear of deportation. And it prohibits U Visa recipients from applying for permanent residency, in essence making it tougher for victims to rebuild their lives in a safe environment.

The bill also limits the amount of time a victim has to file charges and the time authorities have to prosecute — unreasonable, given the state of prosecutor offices and courts.

In the past, the act’s protection of immigrants, be they legal or undocumented, has enjoyed bipartisan support — in recognition that abusers often use the threat of reporting the victim to immigration authorities to continue the abuse for years, and victims fail to report or prosecute for fear of reprisals.

Adams’ communications director, Lisa Boothe, told me the bill contains “stronger anti-fraud protections,” and indeed a lot of the legal language in the immigrant section, which takes up 26 of the bill’s 185 pages, sounds more like immigration-control law than protection against domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking. One would think all groups need to be refrained from making fraudulent claims, not just immigrants.

It’s bad enough that Adams is making distinctions among her constituents, as many in Central Florida are immigrants, but as a woman who endured abuse and made a career helping victims, her stance is incomprehensible. Why not meet with the immigrant-rights groups and come up with better legislation?

As Adams well knows, when it comes to domestic abuse, it’s not easy to rebuild without the help of others. The secrecy of a geographic location is crucial. So is compassion.

Vulnerable victims need Adams’ help, not the additional burdens and disenfranchisement she brings to the table with parts of this bill.

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