The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the federal law that provides broad protections for abused spouses, children, and other family members, has been in the spotlight recently. Democrats in the United States Senate have brought the bill up for reauthorization in the midst of a series of debates over legal issues pertaining to women. The law provides important protections for immigrants who are the victims of domestic violence. It offers a procedure for obtaining legal status even without the help of a citizen or permanent resident relative, if that relative has been abusive.
VAWA was first enacted in 1994. The law was drafted by then-Senator Joseph Biden’s office in collaboration with multiple advocacy organizations. VAWA authorized $1.6 billion for efforts to investigate and prosecute violent crimes committed against women. It imposed an automatic obligation on people convicted of such violent crimes to pay restitution, and it allowed civil claims by domestic violence victims against perpetrators in situations where prosecutors did not pursue criminal cases. The bill requires reauthorization again in 2012.
Congress has reauthorized the law twice, in 2000 and 2005, each time with a wide margin of support. The 2000 reauthorization included a provision creating the Office on Violence Against Women within the U.S. Department of Justice. The Office assists in the development of policy regarding domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault, and it administers grants provided by the government for programs related to these areas.
VAWA provides immigration benefits to spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who are victims of domestic abuse committed by the citizen or permanent resident. Applying for an immigrant visa or green card normally requires the involvement of the citizen or permanent resident relative, so VAWA allows individuals to apply for immigration benefits without the abuser’s knowledge or consent. A spouse who has been the victim of domestic violence may apply for themselves and unmarried children under the age of 21. A parent of a child who has been the victim of abuse may apply for themselves and that child. An abused child under the age of 21, who has suffered abuse from a parent, may apply for themselves. The law does not specify the gender of an abused spouse or child.