GOP spots immigration, marriage fraud and funding loopholes in Violence Against Women Act

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The optics of opposing legislation to combat domestic violence and assist victims are never good, especially for politicians who already face accusations of waging a “war against women.”

With Senate Democrats hastening the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to further that narrative, Senate Republicans are in a tricky position: having genuine concerns about the legislation but facing politically damning charges.

Since it was enacted in 1994, VAWA has enjoyed bipartisan support and smooth passage in each of its 6 year re-authorizations. So just what are the Republicans’ problems with VAWA this time around?

According to Senate Republicans, there are many.

Unlike earlier re-authorizations, this legislation, sponsored by Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, contains new, divisive provisions and lacks protections against fraud, Republicans say.

For example, Leahy’s new version of VAWA would create 5,000 additional “U-visas,” which are given to immigrants — legal and illegal — who are likely to aid in criminal investigations.

Immigrants who apply for U-visas do not necessarily need to assist in actual investigations, Republicans say, so an illegal immigrant facing deportation could apply for one without ever needing to aid law enforcement. Leahy’s bill does not contain provisions to prevent such abuse.

Another concern leveled by Republicans is that the VAWA re-authorization contains no protections for citizens against marriage fraud. In most circumstances, an immigrant must rely on his or her citizen spouse to file for a visa. If abuse is alleged, under VAWA, the immigrant is able to apply for his own visa with a VAWA Self-Petition — opening up the possibility of fraudulent marriages and allegations of abuse once the would-be petitioner is in the country.

The Senate Judiciary Committee received 22 letters from spouses who claimed to be victims of that kind of fraud.

The Leahy bill also provides legally unprecedented jurisdiction for alleged domestic and sexual violence crimes committed against American Indian women by non-Indians on Indian reservations. The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that tribes do not have authority over non-Indians, even if the crime occurs on the reservation.

Finally, Republicans are upset about the lack of oversight over $600,000 in grants contained in the bill. They point out that the Government Accountability Office has found that funding is not adequately tracked to evaluate the effectiveness of VAWA programs, and that the Office of Inspector General has raised questioned about the size of the grants and the grantees’ use of the money.

To address those concerns, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley introduced his own version of VAWA in committee, a version Democrats rejected.

According to Republicans, all that is needed is for Democrats to address their concerns and not force a vote that would only bring “no” votes from a number of Republicans.

“No doubt we need to consider the VAWA bill at the appropriate time, but there must be a fair process that includes consideration of our alternative that ensures more money goes to victims rather than bureaucrats and helps root out more of the well-documented fraud in the program,” Grassley said. “The Republican leadership has no intention of blocking fair consideration of this bill.”

ABC News has reported that aides say Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to bring the bill to the Senate floor by the end of March.

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Caroline May