By the last day of the 112th Congress, legislators figured out a way to avert the fiscal cliff, but they hadn’t fulfilled their other responsibility: To reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The bill had been caught up in partisan bickering for months, and, thanks to Republican resistance to provisions protecting LGBT, undocumented, and Native American victims, a final version was never passed.
Another push for the reauthorization of VAWA is expected to hit the Senate floor next week. And while there will still be arguments over the protection of some of those groups, thanks to the immigration reform efforts by President Obama and the so-called ‘gang of eight,’ undocumented women might not be among them.
One of the largest sticking points for Republicans about the Senate’s latest version of VAWA was that it included an expansion of the ‘U-Visa’ system — visas extended to people who are undocumented, but have been victims of crimes, including rape, stalking, and domestic abuse. Congress has previously capped U-visas at 10,000 a year; Republicans did not want to expand the system, since it provides a pathway to legal status for women who sought one.
The reasons for such visas are clear — if women fear that they will be deported from the country, or that police will feel no need to help them since they are not legally in the country, they are far, far less likely to report crimes committed against them. The low cap on U-visas (which the government hit before the end of year several times) acted as another deterrent for reporting crimes.
Now that the President and members of Congress are suggesting a measure that would give green cards to all undocumented people who qualify, U-visas will be rendered a moot point. Victims of domestic violence will be able to call the police without fear of deportation. That means that women who, as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) put it, are “living in the shadows” will be able to come forward and report the crimes committed against them.
Of course, this does nothing to help protect the LGBT or Native American victims who still go without protection. Nor does it help to get VAWA, finally, renewed. But bringing undocumented people into the fold — letting them be the Americans they have wanted to be for so long — will help shine a light on crimes that have gone under-reported and victims that have gone without help.