A leading New York City Republican spoke out this week in favor of reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), breaking ranks with his national counterparts who are currently blocking the bill's passage.
Richmond County District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan testified at a Feb 27 hearing before the Women's Committee of the New York City Council hearing called to review the proposed expansion of the act to include immigrant, LGBT and Native American victims, who statistically have high rates of victimization and low reporting.
“Making inroads and establishing trust with these various communities is crucial to our efforts to combat domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Donovan, whose Staten Island office received $61,000 in VAWA grants in 2011 (of the total $7 million awarded to New York State).
The resolution calling on Congress to pass the measure was laid over by committee, meaning it can be considered at another time–several members of the committee moved in and out of the hearing as advocates testified. The resolution had the support of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, though it is not clear if it will go to the full council, which passed a similar resolution in 2000.
Though largely symbolic, the move highlighted the stark contrast between New York City and Washington, where Sen. Charles Grassley, (R-Iowa) has been leading the charge against reauthorization in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The bill fails to recognize the dire fiscal situation, fails to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and adds unjustifiable controversial provisions,” wrote Grassley in a letter to the editor of the New York Times dated Feb. 10.
Warning that current standards could encourage immigration fraud, Grassley pushed for amendments that would set the bar for a U-Visa much higher, including requiring a conviction of the perpetrator before the victim could be granted a visa.
“We must do everything in our power to help victims of abuse and domestic violence,” Grassley said in a statement in early February. “At the same time, we can't allow a law intended to prevent abuse to be manipulated as a pathway to U.S. citizenship for foreign con artists and criminals.
Reaching Out to Immigrant Victims
However, advocates told City Council members that those provisions were critical to strengthening VAWA's original mission.
“VAWA has played a central role in responding to domestic and sexual violence in New York City and across the country,” said Anna Ognibene of the New York City Bar Association. “The VAWA Reauthorization Act would strengthen existing protections and bring us closer to our goal of ending violence.”
In Staten Island, New York's smallest borough in population size, VAWA grants paid for hiring additional workers capable of communicating with New York's multiple ethnic communities. According to Donovan, his staff members now speak 16 languages.
The newest version of VAWA would expand efforts to address immigrant victims by allowing the Department of Homeland Security to offer up to 5,000 additional visas to victims of domestic or sexual violence, as well as expanding the U-Visa to cover dating violence and stalking.
The changes would also make it easier for immigrant victims to file petitions for a change in immigration status under VAWA and require immigration detention facilities to comply with federal new Prison Rape Elimination Act standards.
The move has been supported by immigrant advocates and the National Sheriff's Association but has faced roadblocks.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For more on PREA, see “Can ICE Police Itself?”
City-wide, NYPD statistics show that police responded to nearly 250,000 domestic violence incidents in 2010 alone. Young immigrant woman have historically been among those at highest risk of dying in intimate partner violence in New York City.
A 2004 study of women murdered in New York City between 1999 and 2002 found 51 percent of women killed in intimate partner violence were foreign-born.
New York City has made particular efforts to address immigration as part of a wider initiative to address domestic violence. The city's three Family Justice Centers, all of which use VAWA funds, offer legal and support services to victims of domestic violence.
Last November, New York City Major Michael Bloomberg announced a plan to further expand outreach to immigrant victims by adding legal muscle to these centers.
Splitting Along Party Lines
The vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee in early February split along party lines, with all eight GOP members opposing the expanded version of the bill. The measure was approved, 10 to 8, and will be sent to the Senate floor.
Most anticipate VAWA will pass, though Republican opposition in the house would likely result in cutting a number of the expansion items.
Republicans are not alone in criticizing VAWA. On the other end of the political spectrum, a group of feminist law professors has called for a closer look at the assumptions that underpin VAWA.
Professor Leigh Goodmark, co-director of Center on Applied Feminism at the University of Baltimore School of Law, is among them.
The author of A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System, she questions whether VAWA's reliance on the criminal justice system is the best approach to addressing domestic violence and sexual assault.
“VAWA poured millions into the criminal justice system, but there is no really good data [showing that] the massive spending on criminal justice involvement has decreased violence against women,” Goodmark told The Crime Report.
“Nobody wants to admit that it may not be working, or that there may be a better way,” she said.
Nevertheless, she supports the reauthorization of VAWA with the additional provisions.
Lisa Riordan Seville is the deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.