Silvia's family thought they were protecting her when they sent her away to the United States at the end of her sixth-grade year. She had just given birth to a daughter. The father was a friend of Silvia's family, an older man who began sexually abusing Silvia when she was 13. Silvia left Guatemala to join her father and sister, who were already living in the north. Her daughter would be raised by her abuser's mother.
Silvia, who withheld her legal name as a safety measure, told her story in Spanish to a group of reporters, covering over ten years of her life in a matter of minutes with the studied composure of someone who knows the horror of her words is not their only force. She is a client of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), which convened the June meeting along with the Latina organization Casa de Esperanza.
Her father told her she needed to earn money, so her new life in the United States began with a restaurant job, where she met another older man. "We started to become friends," said Silvia. "Our relationship became intimate and after a time, I realized I was pregnant."
She moved in with him, but kept her new living situation a secret from her father. For the first two months, her partner treated her well. Then the emotional abuse began. By that time, Silvia's father had discovered her deception and he was so furious he refused to speak to her. Their estrangement made for easy ammunition. "No one loves you," Silvia's partner told her. "No one wants you." Silvia said she felt like she had nowhere to go. Two months later, the physical abuse began. Silvia's voice breaks for the first time when she recounts how he pushed her, how he kept her locked in their apartment, only letting her leave to run errands or buy cleaning supplies. She was 16 years old.
According to Casa de Esperanza's Director of Public Policy Rosie Hidalgo, the dark years in Silvia's past follow an all-too-common thread. Abusive spouses whose victims live in the United States without documentation have incredible power, explained Hidalgo in Spanish, if they know their partners will avoid contact with law enforcement for fear of deportation. "They use [the victim's immigration status] as a tool of the abuse," said Hidalgo.
Enter the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), an 18-year-old law supporters say could mean the difference between life and death for women like Silvia. VAWA's wide-reaching provisions aim to support domestic and sexual violence victims - and since 2000, victims of dating violence and stalking - via measures ranging from funding for shelters and police training to programs improving coordination among agencies and community organizations charged with holding perpetrators accountable.
In its current form, VAWA allows any undocumented person of any gender who is abused by a spouse with legal US residency or citizenship to independently file a petition for legal status, rather than rely on the abuser to sponsor them; self-petitioning is a major step in revoking what often amounts to perpetrators' license for impunity. VAWA also currently allows 10,000 visas known as U visas to be granted each year to provide temporary legal status for victims of physical, mental or sexual abuse who are cooperating in a criminal investigation against the alleged perpetrator.
The Senate's reauthorization of VAWA, S1925, passed in late April and includes improved protections for Native Americans and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It also does more to help immigrants, including expanding the U visa program to 15,000 annually. The 15 Republican votes in favor included all five GOP women.
But on May 16, the House passed its own version, HR 4970, which, along with stripping the Senate's new protections, cuts back on existing safeguards.
Among a long list of criticisms, NIJC decries a section in HR 4970 that would require self-petitioners to be interviewed at least twice at their local immigration office, a process NIJC says could add months of waiting time. Current law allows petitions to be evaluated without an interview, which is only required later when the victim, from the more secure position of holding an approved petition, applies for a green card or permanent residency. Hidalgo said delays can be a matter of life and death: "The most dangerous moment for a victim of domestic violence is when she looks for a way out of her situation" - as Silvia discovered.
After the couple's son was born, the abuse continued. One night, Silvia confronted her partner. He beat her badly, but she managed to escape their apartment. All this time, he had thwarted any chance for her to make friends, but she knew a woman who lived nearby and she called the police from her acquaintance's house. She spent her first night of freedom in a hospital bed recovering from her injuries.
That was more than ten years ago. Silvia is now happily partnered with a man who respects her. And she said VAWA has given her the power to improve her situation. With the help of NIJC, she is seeking a U visa, which would allow her to live and work here while she helps bring her former abuser to justice. "Because of this law, I have hope that from now on, I can have a secure life and be a good mother," she said.
Hidalgo challenges supporters of the House bill who cite immigration fraud to justify some of HR 4970's new requirements. "There are a lot of checks and balances in the current system" to keep fraud at bay, she said. "These changes were not based on a single study or by consulting with people who work in the field."
The National Organization for Women (NOW) made a similar observation about the knowledge deficit the day the whittled-down VAWA passed the House: "Small wonder its proponents were not able to produce experts or professionals who support this bad bill."
Indeed, members of both houses of Congress called out detractors of a stronger VAWA for their lack of on-the-ground experience.
Three and a half decades ago, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) was Kansas City's only female assistant prosecutor. When she called the police on behalf of a woman who was beaten almost to death by her partner, this is what she heard: "You know, hon, let it go. Tell her to go home." In the lead up to the Senate passage, McCaskill chastised her Republican colleagues in the Judiciary Committee for refusing to support the expanded bill. "If you were there 35 years ago on the front lines and you knew the progress we have made to date, you wouldn't be voting no," said McCaskill.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-California), who once worked as a rape crisis counselor, was equally direct in a press conference the day HR 4970 passed. "Let's call this bill what it's really is. It's not the Violence Against Women Act, but the Open Season for Violence Against Women Act."
In the past, VAWA has enjoyed fairly bipartisan support and was reauthorized with comparatively little controversy in 2000 and 2005. Since the law's inception in 1994, "We have never confronted a situation like what we are confronting now," said Hidalgo.
The House's scaled-down version of VAWA is due to be reconciled with its Senate counterpart sometime before Congress' August recess.