MEMBERS OF Congress who consider themselves tough on crime have long waved the banner for victims. These apostles of law and order, usually but not always conservative Republicans, have pushed for victims’ rights and restitution, arguing that the justice system needs to show more compassion to families shattered by violent crime. Fair enough. But when the victims are immigrant women or gay people who have suffered domestic violence, that conservative compassion seems to melt away.
The federal Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994 and reauthorized without a hitch roughly every five years since. But this year, reauthorization is stalled in the US House, where Republican opponents are balking at new provisions that extend the law’s protections to gay and transgender victims, undocumented immigrants, and certain Native Americans abused on federal reservations. Opponents could use a reminder of what victims’ rights advocates themselves often say: There are real people behind the crime statistics.
Lorena is a 24-year-old mother from El Salvador who was a Waltham High student when she started dating the man who became her abuser. Things were fine at first, but when she became pregnant he started to intimidate and harass her. Several years her senior and a US citizen, he repeatedly threatened her with deportation if she dared protest, because she was not in the country legally.
Things only became worse when their son was born, because her partner had a new cudgel to bully her with. “He would tell me I was nobody because I was an immigrant,” she said in an interview. “He could take my baby away from me. Every day I was saying, I have to do everything he wanted me to because I didn’t want to make him mad.”
The relationship came to the breaking point one Friday afternoon when the father came to pick up their son for one of his sporadic visits (she said he rarely paid full child support). They argued, she said, and the man slammed her against the wall, grabbed the baby, then 2, and jumped over the porch railing, shouting that he was going to call the police and have her deported.
She was terrified, but to her great surprise and relief the Waltham police helped her get a restraining order and introduced her to legal aid and service programs for domestic abuse victims. Thanks to the Violence Against Women Act and the attorneys at Greater Boston Legal Services, Lorena was able to obtain a temporary visa allowing her to live aboveboard and work while her life regained its stability. She finished high school, studied English, and got a good job as a cook in a hotel. “Now I’m trying to push forward,” she said. “I have something in my hand. I can fight every day for my son.”
Lorena’s story ends happily, but many others are not so fortunate. Immigrants make up more than a quarter of domestic violence murders in Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Public Health. Language barriers, social isolation, and cultural ideas about domestic abuse often prevent victims from reporting crimes to police — to say nothing of the fear of deportation. That’s why law enforcement supports increasing the number of so-called “U visas” like the one that saved Lorena.
The US Senate renewed the Violence Against Women Act in April by a 68-31 vote, including 15 Republicans. But House Republicans stripped the bill of the provisions protecting gay victims and expanding the number of U visas (to a total of 15,000).
Republicans say Democrats inserted the expanded protections to score political points in the so-called war on women. Phyllis Schlafly of the conservative Eagle Forum calls the law “a feminist boondoggle” because its modest $625 million budget is used to “train legislators, judges, and prosecutors in feminist ideology and goals.” Others hope the drubbing Republicans took from voters in November will cause them to recalculate attitudes toward gays, immigrants, and women.
Whatever the political considerations, they are beside the point. The batterers don’t care about citizenship or sexual orientation when they terrorize their partners. Neither should Congress.
Correction: In my last column on micro-unit apartments, I incorrectly identified Tamara Roy. She is senior associate principal of ADD Inc.