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National NOW Times >> Winter 2003/2004 >> Article

CLEAR Act Threatens Immigrant Women Victims of Violence

by Karin Almjeld, Communications Intern

In the name of homeland security, conservative members of Congress are proposing a huge step backward for battered women: legislation that would undermine the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act, thereby endangering the lives of immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

On July 9, 2003, House Representatives Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., Melissa Hart, R-Pa., and Allen Boyd, D-Fla., introduced the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal (CLEAR) Act, H.R. 2671. This bill would require local law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration laws, in effect turning local police into immigration agents. If passed by Congress, the CLEAR Act would further endanger already vulnerable immigrant women and their children, who might be afraid to report abuse for fear of the consequences to their immigration status.

"Do the sponsors of this bill care that they are putting the health and lives of immigrant women at risk?" asks NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives. "Protecting our country from terrorism should not come at the expense of helping women who are trying to escape domestic violence, no matter what country they are from." The CLEAR Act compels state and local police departments to enforce the complicated immigration laws, or lose federal funding. Although not specifically asked to seek out undocumented immigrants, the law does instruct police departments to "investigate, apprehend, detain, or remove aliens" discovered during the course of their law enforcement duties.

As a result, the CLEAR Act would have disastrous consequences for immigrant survivors and witnesses of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking and other crimes. Victims of domestic violence are unlikely to leave their abusers if they believe seeking protection from the police could result in their being turned over to the Department of Homeland Security for deportation. They may also fear losing custody of their children to abusive husbands if they are deported as a result of reporting the abuse.

Over the past decade, Congress has sought to encourage immigrant victims to report crimes without fear of deportation, notably by passing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and VAWA 2000. Together, the acts offer relief and life-saving public benefits to immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and/or trafficking, including specific immigration protections for undocumented victims.

For example, VAWA 2000's self-petitioning provision allows a victim abused by a spouse who is a citizen or lawful permanent resident to obtain legal immigration status. Additionally, VAWA 2000's U and T Visa provisions offer protection for immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking who have suffered substantial physical or emotional injury and who cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the crime.

The CLEAR Act would threaten much of the headway that VAWA 2000 made for immigrant victims of domestic violence, and harm thousands of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes that Congress intended to help under these laws.

"NOW activists and all women's rights supporters must speak out on behalf of their sisters who are struggling to make better lives for themselves," said Vives. "Tell Congress that they should be searching for ways to help immigrant women and their children rather than stripping them of protections they need."

The CLEAR Act will also open the door for greater abuse or misapplication of complex immigration laws, since local police are unlikely to receive the 17 hours of immigration law training that federal agents must receive before they start work. NOW, along with more than 100 other human rights organizations, has come out in opposition to this bill, citing the detrimental effect it will have upon immigrant women and our justice system. Go to www.now.org/congress to send a message to your congress members on this important issue.

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