By: Maia Fleischman
Earlier this week, President Trump released a blueprint of his planned budget cuts for the upcoming year. In his blueprint, President Trump reminded the American people why they voted for him—because they entrusted him to make America great again. Specifically, President Trump stated, “ Our aim is to meet the simple, but crucial demand of our citizens—a Government that puts the needs of its own people first.” In his budget proposal, President Trump vows to combat illegal entry and unlawful presence of aliens by increasing the Department of Justice’s budget by almost $80 million. This budget allows the Department of Justice to hire more immigration judges to make removal proceedings of undocumented immigrations function more efficiently. President Trump also outlines eliminating nearly $700 million from the Department of Justice’s discretionary programs.
Following President’s Trump’s proposed budget cuts and accompanying statements, activists from around the country fear that the Violence Against Woman’s Act (VAWA) will be one of the first programs cut. These concerns are not irrationally based. For example, Jeff Sessions, now Attorney General, voted against the reauthorization of VAWA in 2013 as a U.S. Senator for Alabama. In his new role, Sessions is now in charge of enforcing the law, and many distrust his willingness to seek justice for victims of domestic violence, especially immigrant victims.
VAWA’s enactment and enforcement is directly related to the concerns of immigrants. In 1994, Congress passed VAWA under President Clinton’s administration. The law was designed to improve criminal justice responses to sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, as well as increase the number of services available to victims and survivors. Since VAWA’s original enactment, it has been reaffirmed three times (2000, 2005, and 2013), each time with amendments making the law more inclusive. These reforms alleviated criticism that the original law was sexist and arbitrarily targeted men. One of the greatest attributes of VAWA is an increase in protection for immigrants suffering from domestic violence. VAWA allows victims, including battered spouses, children, or parents, to file petitions for themselves without the abuser’s knowledge. For immigrant spouses, a common tactic of abusers is to threaten to call immigration to have the victim deported if the victim threatens to leave the relationship. Abusers gain leverage to do this because often, spouses enter the United States as a conditional permanent resident. The condition being that they remain married to their spouse for two years. By allowing victims to self-petition and break away from their abusive spouse or family member, Congress helped ensure their safety and future independence from their abuser to continue living in the United States without relying on the abuser’s support.
Budget cuts for VAWA will take a big hit for immigration relief that many men, woman, and children rely on as a matter of life or death. These budget cuts will send a clear message that the United States is ambivalent to enforcing the safety of woman in dangerous domestic partnerships. Domestic violence currently accounts for 14% of all homicides in the U.S. Many perpetrators of sexual assault face impunity from their governments in Latin America. The same impunity that abusers receive in Latin America will now be condoned in the United States. Victims of domestic violence will then face the horrible decision of having to choose between staying with an abusive partner where their lives are constantly in danger or being deported back to a country where they are vulnerable to organized crimes such as human trafficking, extortion, or even being a drug mule. Such a decision goes against VAWA’s intent to protect women from these dangers in the first place.
The United States is already beginning to see a disintegration in VAWA’s purpose. In February, a transgender woman named Irvin Gonzalez was arrested by immigrant officials at a Texas Courthouse after she sought protection from her abusive husband. As a transgender woman, her removal to Mexico would likely have devastating effects because of her vulnerability to being a victim of violence. Sameera Hafic of the We Belong Together immigrant rights campaign released a statement that Gonzalez’s arrest “emboldens the message of many abusers in domestic violence situations or abusive employers or traffickers, folks like that who have made the argument to survivors that if they seek help they will be deported or jailed.”
Such a disintegration in VAWA’s intent conflicts with values that were otherwise continuously confirmed as a priority for the United States in the past fifteen years. The United States ideally is envisioned as a place where victims seek solace and safety from their abusers. Judge Rakoff once wrote in an opinion from MKB v. Eggeston: “It is not the policy of the United States, nor of the State of New York, to leave destitute the battered immigrant wives and children of lawful U.S. residents just because their abusive husbands are no longer supporting them or providing them with a basis for obtaining aid.” If the aim of President Trump, as he stated in his budget cut proposal, is to put the needs of American citizens first, then Judge Rakoff’s opinion holds very little weight in the current administration and will no longer represent the United States’ policy.