Bill debate centers on vulnerable women
Who in Congress doesn't want to pass a bill that helps protect women against acts of violence? No one, of course.
But the Violence Against Women Act, first passed in 1994 and reauthorized previously without fanfare, hit a snag this time around.
The hiccup in the bill involved groups of vulnerable people: Native Americans, immigrants and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT.
That's the reason there was no consensus over a law that primarily provides support for organizations that serve domestic violence victims, said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisconsin, herself a rape victim.
"The violence Against Women Act has always been bipartisan, but this time, because of best practices from advocates, from people in law enforcement, they saw the need to expand this to communities of color, to Native Americans, to the LGBT community and young women who needed protection on campuses," Moore said.
The differences over provisions affecting native, immigrant and LGBT women led to separate bills in the House and Senate. No compromise was reached. Time ran out and the Violence Against Women Act was not reauthorized.
"It's a shame that we're at this point," Moore said. "Certainly we're very concerned about whether or not we're going to have these particular communities ignored."
The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women said it was deeply disappointed that a final bill could not be agreed upon.
"The U.S. House of Representatives continued to voice strong opposition to offering basic protections to certain vulnerable populations," the task force said.
The Senate voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act in April. In doing so, it added several provisions to the reauthorization bill that some Republican members of the House felt were moving the goalposts too much.
The Senate bill gave tribal authorities jurisdiction to prosecute cases on Indian reservations, specified against discrimination of LGBT victims and allowed undocumented immigrant survivors of domestic violence to seek legal status.
Every Republican woman in the Senate voted for the measure and it passed the Senate 68-31.
The next month, the House passed its own version of the reauthorization bill that contained none of those provisions. Republicans said the changes were unnecessary. The law, they said, already covered all women.
But that's not how supporters of the Senate bill saw it. They said they never envisioned an argument over victims of violence. President Barack Obama threatened to veto the House bill.
Jana Walker, director of the Indian Law Resource Center's Safe Women, Strong Nations project, said it was hard for her to understand why a law strengthening safeguards would be controversial in this day and age.
The groups of people affected by the Senate version of the bill "are some of the most vulnerable under our current legal system," she said.
She said she was particularly disappointed with opposition to extending power to tribal authorities to prosecute cases. Native American women face a risk of attack that is greater than the national average.
One in three native women will be raped in their lifetime, according to the Indian Law Resource Center. Three in five will be physically assaulted. Native women also are killed at a rate 10 times the national average.
The center recently released a video that shows various native women citing statistics and urging lawmakers to take action.
"The law doesn't protect me," they say in the video. "I want to be safe and when my safety is violated, I want justice. I need your vote now because someday you will need mine. Do something."
The center estimates that 88% of crimes against women are perpetrated by non-Indians. But Walker said federal prosecutors decline about 67% of the cases from Indian country.
"This just leads perpetrators to act with impunity," she said.
The National Congress of American Indians addressed the issue in a December 20 letter to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia.
It described situations in which beatings and rapes by non-native men were declined for prosecution at a federal level and returned to a tribal court as a misdemeanor. Federal law currently prohibits tribal courts from imposing a jail sentence of more than a year, so they generally do not prosecute felonies. In many instances, such cases are dismissed altogether and a defendant can walk free until a grand jury indictment can be obtained.
"The federal criminal justice system is simply not equipped to handle local crimes, and this is the primary reason that tribes seek local control over these crimes that are plaguing our communities," the letter said.
A second issue of contention involved undocumented immigrants.
Human Rights Watch has found that immigrant farm workers are especially at risk for domestic abuse and argued provisions in the Senate bill "would go some way toward fixing the problem."
Supporters of the Senate bill said the House version undercut protections for undocumented immigrants.
Leslye Orloff, the director of the National Immigrant Women's Advocacy Project at American University, helped draft protections for immigrants in the Violence Against Women Act. She said the House bill broke with "that history by weakening vital confidentiality provisions" that protected against retaliation.
The law allowed for a U-visa, which gave an undocumented victim protection from deportation if the victim met certain criteria and agreed to assist with the investigation.
"The House bill would put immigrant crime victims on a path 'from report to deport' by making U-visas temporary and contingent on factors outside the victim's control, such as whether a rapist has been identified," Orloff wrote in a commentary for CNN. "It would also remove the possibility of lawful permanent resident status for those who, thanks to the U-visa, are able to summon the courage to report crimes and cooperate in criminal investigations and prosecutions."
The U-visa, she said, has been instrumental in solving and preventing serious crimes that include murder, rape, torture and kidnapping.
Those in the LGBT community are another high-risk group that will be affected by the Violence Against Women Act.
They experience violence at the same rate as heterosexuals but are less likely to report it. When they do, many are denied services. About 45% of LGBT victims were turned away when they sought help from a domestic violence shelter and nearly 55% of those who sought protection orders were denied them, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women.
Those added provisions ended up as battle lines between Democrats and Republicans in a Congress that earned a reputation as "do-nothing."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, called the House version of the bill a "backward step for women." She has already pledged to make the Violence Against Women Act a priority for the 113th Congress, the most diverse one to date.
Cantor's spokeswoman, Megan Whittemore, said the majority leader had not blocked anything but worked hard to move the bill forward. Cantor, she said, has been seeking "common ground across party lines (to) put an end to violence against women."
How it all turns out is left to be seen, as lawmakers must start over with legislation aimed at protecting the women of America.
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