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Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization: Congress Must Display Bipartisanship

It is a troubling sign of the times that our policymakers are deadlocked over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), a bipartisan bill that forms the bedrock of the U.S. national response to a pressing social problem.This landmark law, the first federal legislation to acknowledge domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes, saves lives and deters violent crime by funding and supporting assistance to state and local law enforcement and victim service organizations to help victims, and creating a pathway to lawful immigration for undocumented immigrant survivors who satisfy certain eligibility criteria. Administered by the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, VAWA programs have dramatically improved federal, state, local and tribal responses to these devastating crimes.

Twice reauthorized, in 2000 and 2005, this critical legislation expired in 2011. Vital, lifesaving laws and programs hang in the balance as Congress continues to quibble over which version of the bill to pass.

Given the compelling issues at stake, policymakers on either side of the aisle should be clamoring to champion this sexy bill, a bipartisan no-brainer. But a number of lawmakers and their constituents are conflating genuine concerns addressed in a Senate-passed version of the Act with certain hot-button topics that dominated our recent election cycle. Anti-gay and anti-immigrant sentiments are undermining the sponsors’ efforts to push the Senate’s version of VAWA by causing House Republicans to balk over several proposed new provisions.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) with Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) in November 2011 and cosponsored by 61 senators (Democrats and Republicans), includes uniform non-discrimination language to ensure that victims seeking assistance cannot be denied services based on gender, sexual orientation, race, color, religion, national origin or disability. Proposed revisions include extending protection to additional categories of undocumented immigrant victims, increasing the authority of Native American tribes to prosecute non-Indians who rape, sexually assault or batter somebody on a reservation, and prohibiting discrimination against LGBT victims.

Some members of the GOP are concerned that increasing the number of nonimmigrant visas available to undocumented crime victims will open the proverbial immigration floodgates. In reality, the overall number of these visas awarded annually is relatively modest and tightly controlled, and the eligibility criteria are daunting. This expanded immigration remedy is designed to encourage undocumented victim-witnesses, who fear that cooperating with law enforcement officials could lead to deportation, to report violent crimes to police and testify against the offenders in court. Letting violent criminals off the hook simply in order to ensure that less undocumented victims secure safe haven in this country is an indefensible justification for striking this senate-proposed provision.

Guaranteeing non-Indian rapists and batterers immunity for violating victims who, by choice or by fate, happen to find themselves on an Indian reservation at the time of victimization is an equally objectionable outcome. And one’s stance on issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity is utterly irrelevant to the question of whether LGBT crime victims merit the same protections from violence that we offer heterosexual victims. Rejecting these Senate revisions would force authorities to continue discriminating against certain categories of victims and encourage violent criminals to target exceptionally vulnerable men, women and children.

Congress will eventually reauthorize VAWA, because Democrats and Republicans generally agree that every human being has a fundamental right to be free from violence, rape, and sexual assault. Congress will reauthorize VAWA because ours is a nation built on certain core principles, like defending the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society, deterring violent crime and bringing perpetrators to justice. These are Democratic and Republican values, American values, values we can all agree upon.

However, a reauthorized VAWA that fails to incorporate the contested Senate-proposed provisions would give rapists, batterers and other abusers carte blanch to violate certain men, women and children with impunity based solely on the victims’ immigration status, sexual orientation, or their physical presence on an Indian reservation at the time the crime occurs. Following the bill’s passage in the Senate, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) remarked,“Expanding coverage for domestic violence should never have been controversial. Where a person lives, who they love, or what their citizenship status may be should not determine whether or not their perpetrators are brought to justice.”

Earlier this week, Senator Leahy underscored the importance of ensuring that VAWA addresses the changing needs of all victims and urged Congress to come together and send the bill to President Obama without further delay.

“On VAWA, the time for posturing has long passed,” said Senator Leahy. “Both parties could have celebrated the passage of yet another bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill after the Senate’s convincing vote in April, and today, more victims would be receiving the critical protections included in the Senate-passed VAWA reauthorization bill… Innocent lives are on the line when it comes to domestic and sexual violence. Delaying these needed protections is unacceptable. These victims of rape and domestic violence cannot wait.”

On the heels of an unprecedentedly nasty and brutish term fraught with overt and (at times) even deliberate contentiousness, when bipartisanship is the order of the day, comes a piece of legislation born to broker a détente. It is an exemplary opportunity for our much-maligned legislators to extend an olive branch across that aisle and show us they meant what they said about making a bona fide effort to get along after Election Day.

Recess is over, Congress. Time to buckle down and team up to reauthorize a robust, inclusive version of VAWA.

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