Senate Passes Domestic Violence Bill With New Key Protections

The bill faces an uncertain future in the House.

February 12, 2013, 1:22 PM

Feb. 12, 2013— -- The Senate voted Wednesday to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, but the bill's transformation into law is by no means certain.

A bill aimed at preventing domestic violence might sound reasonably uncontroversial, but House Republicans have voiced their opposition to some of the provisions, including one that would allow American Indian authorities to prosecute non-American Indians in tribal courts.

The original 1994 act expired in 2011 and a divided Congress failed to reauthorize it last year. Republicans, reeling from a poor performance with women and minorities during the November election, have been more receptive this time around. The bill would grant more than $650 million over five years to states and local governments to provide things like transitional housing and legal assistance to victims.

The hang-up is in the details of the bill.

Domestic abuse is particularly prevalent on reservations, and the abuse comes by-and-large from non-tribal partners. American Indian women are more than twice as likely to be raped as white women, and many are left in limbo between tribal authorities who are powerless to act against non-tribal aggressors and local officials who are unable to exert much control on tribal lands. The new Senate bill recognizes tribal authority to prosecute non-American Indians who abuse their partners.

The Democrat-dominated Senate also added protections for gays, lesbians and immigrants, a move that drew ire from some Republicans.

Immigrant women are less likely to report abuse to authorities. According to a report by the National Institute of Justice, Hispanic women, too, are more likely than non-Hispanic women to be raped by a current or former intimate partner, but less likely to report the abuse to authorities.

The reasons for that are complicated and varied, but they range from fear of retaliation by the abuser to a belief that authorities will not believe the allegations of violence. The latter is particularly acute for immigrants who may lack an understanding of the justice system, and undocumented immigrants, who may fear deportation.

The bill attempts to allay some of those fears by spelling out specific protections for immigrants.

Abused immigrants who are married to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident and living in the country with documentation would be allowed to petition for independent legal status without relying on abusive spouses, who often use the sponsorship they provide as an intimidation tool.

While the bill contains a visa option that allows victimized undocumented immigrants to remain in the country, a previously proposed increase in the number of those visas the Department of Homeland Security can issue has been nixed.

The bill would extend protections to cover gays and lesbians in abusive relationships, however.

According to a study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 45 percent of LGBT domestic violence victims were turned away when they sought help at a shelter, and more than half were denied protection orders.

The bill would implement a single nondiscrimination provision that would prohibit the denial of services based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability.

"I am proud that our bill seeks to support all victims, regardless of their immigration status, their sexual orientation or their membership in an Indian tribe," sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said in a statement. "As I have said countless times on the floor of this chamber, 'a victim is a victim is a victim.'"

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) has taken the lead in crafting a House bill, and has said he will move quickly. He is likely to receive pressure from House Republicans to prevent tribal authorities from prosecuting non-tribe members, however, and some have objected to extending protections to same-sex couples. Cantor has sought advice from Vice President Joe Biden who had a key role in crafting the 1994 legislation.

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