On February 12, 2013 the U.S. Senate voted to ratify the Violence Against Women Act by a vote of 78 to 22. This now leaves reauthorization of VAWA up to the members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Last year, both chambers of Congress presented bills that would have renewed VAWA, but differences in provisions regarding gay, immigrant and Native American victims led to inaction. With such overwhelming support in the Senate, and removal of a controversial provision which would have increased the number of U visas, the prospects for Congressional approval are markedly improved.
As an immigration lawyer in Texas, I am often confronted with cases involving women who have been subjected to violence at the hands of their husband or a family member. This has been addressed in the past by the introduction of the U visa program, which grants battered wives, children, or siblings under the age of 18 with a four year visa that allows work eligibility. Currently the number of U visas is capped at 10,000 per year, but Senator Patrick Leahy, who authored the latest version of VAWA, had originally intended to raise this number. In order to receive bipartisan support in the Senate and improve chances of passage in the Republican controlled House, Sen. Leahy left out the U visa changes. He stated that he would seek to enter this provision into immigration reform acts that would be presented later in the year.
The Violence against Women Act was initially passed in 1994 and was reauthorized by Congress in 2000 and 2005. A key provision of VAWA allowed victims of violence to seek entry to the U.S. through the U visa program if they could establish a familial relationship with the abuser, shared residency with the abuser, maintained good moral character and had been a victim of battery or criminal cruelty in the past.
U visas are granted to individuals who have received physical or mental abuse resulting from rape, torture, false imprisonment, or a number of other criminal actions. Applicants must fill out appropriate petitions and receive certification from a law enforcement agency attesting to the applicant’s status as a victim of domestic violence. Although this is established under the Violence Against Women Act, the applicant does not have to be female. Applicants do not need to possess legal immigrant status to apply for U visas.
As a seasoned immigration lawyer in Texas, I often encounter situations where a wife or family member has been criminally abused by someone at their residence. This heartbreaking situation is often complicated by the fact that those involved may not possess proper immigration documentation, which may inhibit seeking help from law enforcement. Now that VAWA appears to be poised for renewal, I am eager to begin recommending to individuals in these situations to continue to apply for U visas.