The newly sworn in 113th Congress has come together — attempting to put aside partisan vitriol and personal attacks in favor of protecting the country’s most vulnerable by reintroducing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
VAWA aims to expand protections for women across the country, particularly victims of rape and domestic violence, by granting greater authority to investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases as well as increase limited funding to support victims.
On Tuesday, senators Mike Crapo, (R—Idaho) and Patrick Leahy, (D—Vt.) have reintroduced the Violence Against Women Act. Although previous reauthorizations of the 1994 legislation, drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden (D—Del.), have been approved almost automatically since its inception, VAWA was allowed to pass its expiration date late last year by the 112th Congress after the Senate reauthorized the measure with bipartisan support, but the House GOP refused to play ball, killing the bill.
Prior to VAWA, more often than not, abusers saw little to no punitive action while women were left to face the menacing side of reporting their abusers, suffering quietly, rather than risk losing their dignity, jobs, homes, and custody of their children.
The House GOP countered unsuccessfully, proposing its own diluted version of the bill, drumming up a great deal of controversy because it excluded three groups, particularly at risk for sexual and domestic violence — Native American women, immigrant women, and members of the LGBT community.
A number of House Republicans have frowned on the portions of the bill that would raise the number of visas for undocumented victims of domestic violence, its extension of tribal authority over non-tribe members who abuse their American Indian partners, and its establishment of protections for LGBT victims of domestic violence.
The GOP stonewalled VAWA on the grounds that the bill raises revenue through an application fee for visas for undocumented immigrants of domestic violence. Congressional protocol calls for bills that generate revenue to originate in the House, not the Senate.
Taking into account the GOP’s procedural objection, the new version of VAWA also will omit the section that would have increased the number of special visas allotted for undocumented immigrant victims of domestic violence. Based on the approval of law enforcement, the federal government grants legal status to undocumented victims of abuse, which empowers those victims to assist in prosecuting their abusers, and frees them from economic dependency on them. Republicans have opposed raising the yearly cap of 10,000 “U visas” for undocumented victims, as doing so may invite fraud.
"Caps are a way to control the flow of people," Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a floor speech against the bill last year They are a stop-gap measure against fraud,"
Women’s rights advocates are strong supporters of the new version of the bill, citing its provisions aiding immigrant victims of domestic violence, as well as Leahy’s assurance that he will use a prospective immigration reform bill to address the U visa cap issue. "Does it thrill us that the U visa piece is not in there? Absolutely not," said Lisalyn Jacobs of the women's rights group Legal Momentum. "Are we sanguine about it, because we think we can now get a bill over to the House they can act on we hope? Yes."
Although the new version of VAWA satisfies the House GOP’s procedural objection concerning U visas, it remains uncertain whether they will support it. The House version of the bill was reintroduced without Republican co-sponsors. Anti-violence against women advocates are determined to proceed.
"[There] is no excuse to let VAWA reauthorization continue to drag on, especially when you see what is happening around the world, when you see what's happening in India, when you see what happened in Steubenville," said Rosie Hidalgo of Casa Esperanza, a group focused on domestic violence in the Latino community. "To have our own Congress unable to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act sends the wrong message."
Until Congress can reach a meeting of the minds, countless vulnerable women and LGBT members’ lives hang delicately in the balance.