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Deferred Action & Work Authorization for VAWA Self-Petitioners in Jeopardy!

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

  • By: Jennifer Lee
  • Organization: Sanctuary for Families

Under the reorganization of government agencies relating to immigration, the BCIS (the customer service end of INS) which adjudicates VAWA self-petitions can no longer grant deferred action, the interim status which allows our approved VAWA self-petitioners to work lawfully and to live here without being subject to deportation for the many years that they spend waiting for their green cards. This is a nightmare for our clients.

Everyone should fax a letter to Tom Ridge, head of the Dep't of Homeland Security, to say that VAWA self-petitioners need deferred action and that BCIS should be able to grant such status to VAWA self-petitioners upon approval of the VAWA self-petitions. Tom Ridge's fax number is 202-282-8404. The following is a sample letter to Secretary Ridge and other senators and representatives.

[Date]

Secretary Thomas J. Ridge Department of Homeland Security
3801 Nebraska Ave., N.W., Building 3
Washington, D.C. 20528

Re: Exclusive BICE Authority to Grant Deferred Action and Effect on Violence Against Women Act Self-Petitioners

Dear Secretary Ridge,

We write to express deep concern with the Department of Homeland Security's recent decision to reserve sole authority for granting Deferred Action to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("BICE"). We fear that this action will undermine Congress' repeated efforts to help immigrant victims of domestic violence and will severely harm thousands of self-petitioners under the immigration provisions of the Violence Against Women Act ("VAWA").

During its existence, the Immigration and Naturalization Service ("INS") demonstrated a strong commitment to ensuring that victims of domestic violence obtained the relief intended by Congress when it enacted the Violence Against Women Act. To this end, INS centralized many VAWA benefits in Vermont with a unit of officers who were specially trained on domestic violence and its impact on noncitizens. We have been especially pleased with the Vermont Service Center's well-founded decisions and timely processing of VAWA self-petitions.

Prior to the reorganization of the INS into BICE and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services ("BCIS"), the Vermont Service Center's ability to grant Deferred Action provided a beacon of hope and stability to immigrant victims of domestic violence. Deferred Action status is particularly crucial for the battered spouses of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) because, unlike the spouses of U.S. citizens, spouses of LPRs must often wait for years before they receive a current visa number permitting them to apply for Adjustment of Status. Under the INS, the Vermont Service Center granted Deferred Action-and employment authorization eligibility-to the self-petitioners immediately upon the approval of their self-petitions.

We are concerned that the decision to shift authority for granting Deferred Action to BICE will risk the lives of battered immigrant women and children for several reasons. The lack of a clear mandate to BICE to grant Deferred Action status will at best delay such a grant. The New York District has already refused to implement the clear directives of an August 30, 2001 interim relief memorandum (Memorandum to Michael Pearson, Office of Field Operations, INS Memo. HQINV 50/1) and grant interim relief to domestic violence victims who establish prima facie eligibility for U visa relief. Our experience with the New York District BICE office suggests that without a direct mandate, and where there has not been specific focus and training on the needs of immigrant victims of domestic violence, such needs are ignored. In other words, we fear that VAWA self-petitioners will not simply face delays in obtaining deferred action, but rather that they may never be granted such status.

The resulting dangers (either from delay, or worse yet, inaction) for women and children are many. Without employment authorization granted based on deferred action status, many victims of violence may conclude that there is no way to feed, clothe and house themselves and their children other than to return to an abusive household which they may have only recently fled. Inability to gain lawful employment forces victims of domestic violence into increasingly vulnerable positions. It prevents many women from being able to obtain more permanent housing after initially fleeing to emergency shelter. Inability to work may also lead to sanctions and ultimate loss of public assistance for themselves and their children, thereby contravening Congress's intent in making VAWA self-petitioners "qualified aliens" eligible to receive certain public benefits under 8 U.S.C. ยง1641(b), 1613(b). Without employment authorization, domestic violence victims cannot rebuild independent lives for themselves and their children in violence-free environments.

In addition, without the swift grant of deferred action status, domestic violence victims remain vulnerable to deportation or removal which, in many cases, includes the ultimate terrifying threat of losing their children to an abusive spouse. Almost every immigrant victim of violence we speak to tells us that her batterer threatened her repeatedly with deportation. That powerful threat is one of the driving reasons behind the creation of the VAWA self-petitioning process and one of the main reasons why immigrant victims are so reluctant to contact the police, flee the abuse or seek other protective services for themselves and their children.

We also find that many batterers will vigorously pursue the involvement of immigration enforcement authorities to have their victims deported. Our extensive experience in other forums-with criminal, family and matrimonial court actions, among others-has taught us that when perpetrators of intimate partner and familial violence lose control of their victims, they frequently turn to the legal system to harass, control, menace and terrify. False complaints to the police are made and long custody battles are fought where the batterer has no interest in or involvement with children. With the possibility, real or imagined, of having immigration authorities pursue, incarcerate and deport domestic violence victims, batterers are likely to feel empowered by this new weapon at their disposal.

[Insert information about you, your agency, and your experience with clients who will be affected by this change]. The recent reorganizational changes which, perhaps inadvertently, will make it more difficult or perhaps near impossible to obtain deferred action will have a devastating impact on our clients and their children, driving them into poverty and dependence, and leaving them at risk of continued abuse.

We therefore urge you to continue to allow the VAWA Unit of BCIS at the Vermont Service Center to have the authority to grant Deferred Action.

Sincerely,
[Signature]

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