Although the federal government's fiscal year doesn't end until Sept. 30, the Department of Homeland Security has already reached the annual 10,000 limit on special visas for undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults and who also assist in investigations or prosecutions. This is the third consecutive time that the cap has been reached, and the earliest.
These visas, known as U visas, grant victims and their close relatives temporary legal status and work eligibility for at least four years. The program, which has built-in safeguards against fraud, has proved a valuable tool for encouraging immigrant victims to come forward and testify against their attackers.
Victims' advocates and law enforcement officials are worried that the suspension in issuing visas until the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 could discourage some women from speaking out and put some victims who have pending visa applications in further jeopardy.
This dilemma is a direct consequence of the Congressional logjam over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, the landmark 1994 law central to the nation's efforts to combat domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. A strong bipartisan reauthorization bill approved by the Senate in May includes provisions to raise the yearly U visa cap from 10,000 to 15,000.Instead of embracing the Senate's work, unfortunately, House Republicans pushed through a regressive measure that omits the Senate's U visa increase, along with new protections for gay, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse. The House bill also calls for eliminating the existing ability of U visa holders to apply for permanent residency after three years, reducing the incentive for frightened victims to come out of the shadows.
Speaker John Boehner and his Republican colleagues blame the Democratic-led Senate for the stalled reauthorization. The real problem remains the refusal of House Republicans to let their chamber vote on the Senate bill and their insistence on an approach that puts politics and prejudices before the needs of domestic violence victims and public safety.