The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has never been partisan legislation. Signed into law in 1994, it was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2000, and again in 2005. But earlier this month, anti-violence advocates were shocked when VAWA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party line vote of 10-8, without a single committee Republican voting for the reauthorization.
Senate Republicans are concerned about two provisions in the new bill: one that expands allowances for undocumented victims of violence to obtain special visas, and one that prohibits resource centers that receive VAWA grant money from denying services on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Most anti-violence advocates consider those provisions necessary improvements. Immigrant women have always been more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than their citizen and legal- resident counterparts, with abusers often using their partner’s immigration status as a means of control – for example, by hiding or destroying important documents. Since its inception, the Violence Against Women Act has sought to aid undocumented victims of violence through what is called the VAWA Self-Petition, which allows battered spouses and their children to petition for lawful immigration status without their abuser’s knowledge or permission, freeing them from dependence on their abusers’ willingness to petition for lawful status on their behalf.
Meanwhile, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs surveyed service providers last year and found that 85% have worked with victims who were denied services because they were LGBT – among advocates who had worked with LGBT victims who were denied services, 91% witnessed such discrimination coming from domestic violence organizations, and 64% saw it coming from law enforcement.
Despite this data, Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, claims that “advocates of this [LGBT-nondiscrimination] provision haven’t produced data that shelters have refused to provide services for these reasons,” calling the protections “a solution in search of a problem… a political statement that shouldn’t be made on a bill that is designed to address actual needs of victims.”
Grassley proposed a substitute bill that, in addition to removing the additional protections for LGBT and undocumented victims of violence, called for a major reduction in authorized financing and elimination of the Justice Department Office on Violence Against Women, but the measure was defeated along the same party lines.
This sudden partisan turn came as a surprise to many of VAWA’s supporters. One of the bill’s primary sponsors, Senator Mike Crapo – who is not on the Judiciary Committee – is a Republican, as are four of its thirty-four co-sponsors. Democratic sponsor Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, “I’ve had other senators tell me — Republican senators — that they just cannot understand how this happened.”
Supporters on both sides of the aisle are confident that VAWA will pass the Senate in a floor vote – but we can’t take chances. Call your senators today (if you call the capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121, you can ask to be transferred directly to your senator’s office) to find out where your lawmakers stand. Tell both of your senators that you are a voting constituent, that the issue of relationship violence is important to you regardless if the person being victimized is straight, gay, transgender, immigrant, or citizen, and that you believe elected officials should not prioritize his or her own feelings toward a group of Americans over addressing a pressing public safety issue.