Evangelical Leaders Split Over Violence Against Women Act
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorized by Congress Wednesday removes protections for immigrant women who are victims of violence. Some faith leaders, including National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson, oppose stripping away provisions that could aid mail-order brides and other immigrants. Other evangelical groups, including Concerned Women for America, want the act scrapped altogether.
Many women come to the U.S. on visas because they are married to a U.S. citizen. But if a wife leaves the husband because of violence in the home, she risks being deported. The act allows women to confidentially petition for a special "U visa" that will allow them to remain in the country as permanent residents.
The new act passed by the House would eliminate a woman's confidentiality—a husband would now be interviewed after his wife has filed for the visa to verify her accusations against him. The standards for granting special visas are stricter under the House bill. The legislation also discourages plea bargaining, which will result in more victims being forced to face abusers in the court room.
Leaders from Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, World Relief, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, Sojourners, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the World Evangelical Alliance, the Christian Community Development Association, the NAE, and other prominent faith-based groups sent an open letter to Congress opposing the new provisions.
"Through our ministry with victims, we have learned that abusers often exploit a victim's immigration status, leaving individuals extremely vulnerable and afraid to report the abuse to law enforcement, assist in the prosecution of crimes, and seek services," the leaders wrote. "[The new VAWA provisions] would actually roll back protections in current law for battered non-citizens, making them more vulnerable and, in some cases, endangering their lives."
Leaders from other organizations oppose the act because it promotes "the feminist agenda" and the "domestic violence ideology." An open letter to Congress written by Concerned Women for America argued against the Senate version of the bill. The letter was signed by leaders from the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, and other groups.
"There is no denying the very real problem of violence against women and children. However, the programs promoted in VAWA are harmful for families," the statement says. "VAWA often encourages the demise of the family as a means to eliminate violence."
Janice Shaw Crouse, a senior fellow of Concerned Women for America's Beverly LaHaye Institute, also said the act does not protect men from false allegations. "VAWA offers women both a 'tactical advantage' and a 'powerful weapon' when they want to 'get back' at a man, have regrets the next morning, or want out of a marriage for any reason at all," Crouse said. "Allegations of abuse can cause men to lose their homes, jobs, children, and standing in the community. Once they've been thrown in jail because of mandatory arrests and have been assumed guilty, where do they go to get their reputations and their jobs back when the accusations are proven false?"
One of the groups that signed CWA's letter is Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE). The Huffington Post reported that SAVE has been lobbying for the immigration-related changes to the act. SAVE's treasurer, Natasha Spivack, founded Encounters International, a company that arranges marriages between American men and Russian women.
Spivack was forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to one of her brides. The woman, who was abused by her American husband, claimed that Encounters International did not properly screen their clients and did not tell women about the U visa provisions of the act. The jury decided against Spivack and awarded the victim $434,000 in damages. The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Spivack knew about the immigration law and withheld this information from the victim when the woman asked for help.
CWA's Crouse used information reported by SAVE when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010 on VAWA, using the group's analysis to make the claim that domestic violence laws lead to violations of basic civil rights. SAVE believes that men and women are equally likely to be violent against their partners; so, the high percentage of men with restraining orders and convictions is evidence to SAVE that the civil rights of around two million men a year are being violated. Crouse repeated SAVE's arguments and cited SAVE's report in her testimony.
NAE president Anderson and Willow Creek co-founder Lynne Hybels opposed the changes to the law in an op-ed on CNN.com, saying that the new act would endanger the lives of women and their children and allow abusers to use immigration laws to exploit women.
"As evangelical Christians, we are committed to Jesus' great commandment to love God and to love our neighbor, with a particular concern for those who are most vulnerable," Anderson and Hybels said. "Loving our neighbor not only means reaching out to those in need, but also means addressing systemic problems that harm those in need."
On the opposing side, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said the Senate bill was unacceptable because it included "loopholes for immigration, millions more in spending, special homosexual protections, and more big government bureaucracy."
"The Violence Against Women Act does real violence to the budget and individual freedom," Perkins said. "So far, Republicans have refused to be intimidated. And they have no reason to be, because the real record of protecting women is on the conservatives' side."
Proponents of the new visa provisions see the changes as a way to stop potential immigration fraud.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, argued during a hearing that those accused of abusing women should be interviewed to check if the victims are trying to game the system.
"Currently, there are no safeguards in place to prevent fraud or to prevent an immigrant from fabricating tales of spousal abuse," Smith said. "Claims of battery and abuse go unchallenged. The immigrant is presumed to be the victim."
Sojourners' Sandi Villarreal said that she has witnessed first-hand the help that victims of sexual assault and domestic violence receive through the act. She said underreporting is one of the reasons it is difficult to prevent violence against women.
"Survivors have to weigh real life-and-death scenarios—not to mention emotional and psychological—when deciding to come forward. It's not easy to let strangers access the most intimate details of your life, your past, your body, and have them be dissected in order to have justice. Now think about that prospect with the added threat of deportation," Villarreal said. "When you live with the stories, when you see how easy it can be to get lost in process, when you watch the system fail—you cannot imagine telling some women they're not worth the protection."
The proposal passed the House 222–205, with 22 Republicans voting against and six Democrats voting in favor of the bill. The House and Senate must now reconcile their different versions of the act as conservatives remain opposed to the Senate version.