“A victim is a victim is a victim,” said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-Onondaga Hill, defending a flawed bill she co-sponsored that would renew — but alter — the Violence Against Women Act. The 1994 law is credited with cutting in half incidents of domestic violence.
In the past, VAWA was reauthorized by bipartisan votes. Its provisions now protect “underserved” populations — immigrants and seniors, victims with disabilities, Native American women. This year, despite partisan wrangling in Congress, VAWA reauthorization passed the Senate with remarkably little controversy, in a bipartisan, 68-31 vote.
In the House, though, VAWA emerged from the Judiciary Committee last week by a partisan 17-15 vote. The House bill is so controversial that seven Republicans have proposed an alternative that mirrors the Senate version.
Why the controversy? Buerkle notes her bill has similar funding levels as the Senate bill. It covers all forms of domestic abuse, and even enhances federal penalties.
But it also rolls back protections for immigrants and Native American women. And it fails to extend protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims of violence.
Buerkle argues that identifying groups for special treatment is problematic. “When you start singling out, you don’t mention others left out,” she said. “Our bill just deals with protection.” Any other approach is “reprehensible” and “political,” she said.
A full House vote on VAWA reauthorization could come any day. Passage would mean rancorous reconciliation talks between the House and Senate. Before Buerkle and her colleagues vote, however, they should consider the following evidence that protecting underserved groups is not pure partisanship:
In a survey last year, 85 percent of advocates for LGBT domestic abuse victims reported clients turned away because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office recently reported U.S. attorneys still decline to prosecute 50 percent of rape cases when the victim is Native American and the assailant is not.
The House bill allows immigration officials to interview the alleged abuser before granting the alleged victim protected status, compromising confidentiality and allowing abusers to manipulate the process. It intimidates victims by restricting access to protective visas — though law enforcers are asking for more such visas. And it mandates more burdensome interviews for battered immigrants. VAWA is not the place to solve the immigration problem.
America always has been about equality. That didn’t stop lawmakers from adding necessary rights protections — from the Emancipation Proclamation to women’s suffrage, from the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to the Americans with Disabilities Act and hate crimes laws.
All victims of domestic abuse deserve protection. The Senate bill moves toward that goal. Buerkle’s bill retreats from it.