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US Legislators Examine Violence Against Women Act

One out of every three people in the United States has been a victim of domestic violence, according to Department of Justice Statistics. In 1994, the United States passed the Violence Against Women Act to protect women against domestic abuse. Since then, more women are reporting these crimes. But now lawmakers are planning to re-examine the law in several areas, particularly as it deals with millions of immigrants in the United States. But not everyone is happy about that.

For eight years Blanca lived a concealed, dark life ... with a violent husband who punched her in the stomach and repeatedly raped her. She eventually found peace at House of Ruth, a shelter offering safety and security to battered women. But before that, she never called police.

Blanca was illegal. Living in America without a work permit or residency. She feared if she notified police, they would deport her back to Central America and she would never again see her young son and daughter.

"I'm not afraid to go back to my country," she says, "I'm not afraid. It's your children, separated from you. It's the hard part."

Blanca is not alone. Nearly half of all Latinos say their partner's violence increased after they emmigrated to the United States. If they are illegal they fear deportation, so less than 15 percent report the crime.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are looking closely at the immigrant provisions in a domestic violence act.

"It doesn't make any difference if it's a family member, boyfriend or stranger. It's a crime. It's a crime," Senator Patrick Leahy says. "It's a crime."

Congress first passed the violence against women act, known as VaWa in 1994. It's up for reauthorization in the next two years. Advocates want more security for immigrants.

"So much more is needed. We must strengthen VaWa so that it works for all victims of sexual or domestic violence - whether they live in rural or urban areas, whether they speak English or another language," Karen Tronsgard-Scott says. "Every victim deserves a chance to live a peace-filled life."

But lawmakers are up against protectionists who don't want taxpayer funds benefiting residents who don't have permission to live in the U.S. Others complain about the confidentiality granted through the law. Once an immigrant claims abuse, their quest for legal status through the VaWa act is secret. The accused is not sought out for his side of the story.

Ron Grignol is a critic who says VaWa makes it easy for women to allege abuse, simply to become permanent residents.

"Right away you're given legal status. You don't have to go through that immigration interview, you don't have to go through the administrative law judge," he explains. "Your spouse or ex-spouse is not allowed to provide any evidence that he thinks you committed fraud."

Immigration attorney Melissa Frisk disagrees. She says the law makes it more difficult to prove abuse.

"It's going to take longer and the evidentiary burdens are even higher. So you need even more evidence than you would for regular immigration application. It's not easy," Frisk says.

For Blanca, VaWa has changed her life. Through the provisions, she obtained a work permit. She got a divorce and moved out of the house. Now she sees her children on a regular basis.

"I feel free! I can read a book and relax. I have a dream that I can see my children graduate," she says.

It's a dream that can finally roll on to become reality.