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Protect immigrant women from violence

By Leith Anderson and Lynne Hybels, Special to CNN
May 16, 2012 -- Updated 1208 GMT (2008 HKT)
Leith Anderson and Lynne Hybels say a new bill could undermine protections for immigrant victims of sex trafficking
Leith Anderson and Lynne Hybels say a new bill could undermine protections for immigrant victims of sex trafficking
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Leith Anderson, Lynn Hybels: House mulling new version of Violence Against Women Act
  • They say new version changes protections for immigrant women trafficked and abused
  • Plan makes U visa, which protects women victims who come forward, temporary
  • Writers: Abusers are empowered in new version of act; House should reject it

Editor's note: Leith Anderson is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 local churches from over 40 different denominations. Lynne Hybels is the co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, which promotes efforts to raise awareness about human trafficking and exploitation.

(CNN) -- Nicole came to the United States from Indonesia on a temporary fiancée visa, fully expecting that she would enjoy life in a new country with the U.S. citizen she intended to marry. Instead, she found herself trapped as a victim of sex trafficking.

Nicole (not her real name), like thousands of other women, was forced to engage in commercial sex acts against her will. We heard about her when she received support from the Salvation Army STOP-IT Program in Illinois, which serves victims who have been harmed by the sex trade. (The Salvation Army is a denominational member of the National Association of Evangelicals.) Eventually, Nicole escaped from her trafficker and assisted law enforcement in the prosecution of the crime committed against her.

Though Nicole's fiancée visa had lapsed, leaving her susceptible to deportation, our nation's anti-trafficking law provided a legal option for her to be granted permanent legal status by helping law enforcement to prosecute her trafficker. With the help of a nonprofit legal service provider and the Salvation Army, Nicole was able to petition on her own for legal status -- and obtain it -- through a special "U" visa for immigrant victims of crime, allowing her to get back on her feet and begin rebuilding her life.

Leith Anderson
Leith Anderson
Lynne Hybels
Lynne Hybels

This week the House of Representatives is considering a proposal to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, first enacted in 1994, but in a new version that would significantly undermine the same U visa program that provided Nicole with safety and permanency in the United States.

The U.S. government estimates that as many as 17,500 foreign-born victims are illegally trafficked in from abroad each year, and academic estimates suggest that at least 100,000 victims of human trafficking live in the United States today.

By force, fraud or coercion, traffickers keep victims enslaved in prostitution or forced labor.

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If the House proposal is enacted, thousands like Nicole could remain enslaved, too afraid to speak out because some of their most effective safeguards will have disappeared. The proposal., introduced by Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Florida, would dramatically roll back important protections for battered immigrant women and their children. It could face a vote Wednesday afternoon.

Several provisions would leave immigrant victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse no legal way to break the cycle of violence in which they are trapped.

Specifically, this version would remove the incentive of permanent safe haven in the United States for women who help bring abusers to justice. By changing the U visa from permanent to temporary, the bill could validate an abuser's threat that a call to police could result in deportation. Many women would keep quiet rather than risk immigration consequences.

The bill would also allow abusive partners in domestic violence cases to provide input as to whether their victim should qualify for immigration relief, stripping confidentiality provisions that currently protect victims. Abusive spouses, who are in a position to petition to adjust the status of their immigrant wives through marriage, can choose not to do so as a tool of abuse and fear. Abusers frequently deny guilt and falsely accuse victims of fraud or abuse.

We don't want a bill that endangers some of the women and children it purports to help. Overall, this bill's proposed changes to current law would discourage immigrant victims from escaping abuse and reporting crimes, and make all of us less safe.

Women -- and, often, their children -- come to our churches for sanctuary and hope. We believe Adams' proposal would put more lives in danger. It would perpetuate abusers' use of immigration status as part of the cycle of exploitation.

As evangelical Christians, we are committed to Jesus' great commandment to love God and to love our neighbor, with a particular concern for those who are most vulnerable. Through local churches and ministries, we extend that love when we provide counseling and support for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence. In doing so, we point to the ultimate healing and restoration that we believe is found only in Jesus.

We also love our neighbor by speaking up when laws are proposed that could cause harm, intentionally or not. Loving our neighbor not only means reaching out to those in need, but also means addressing systemic problems that harm those in need.

That's why we're asking Speaker John Boehner and the House leadership to make sure that the Violence Against Women Act continues to protect vulnerable immigrant women who are victims of human trafficking or domestic violence. They need our protection.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leith Anderson and Lynne Hybels.

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