Two Queens legislators are looking to protect illegal immigrants trapped in domestic violence situations in the event federal protections for them expire in June.
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) and Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) plan to introduce companion bills that would safeguard the confidentiality of the victims who seek the protection of police and the courts.
Speaking on the steps of Borough Hall last week, Meng and Stavisky said the existing Violence Against Women Act, first enacted in 1994, has protected the identities and statements of victims and witnesses in domestic violence cases.
But the law sunsets next month, and a reauthorization bill that passed out of committee in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 9 would eliminate those protections for victims or witnesses in the country illegally.
“Our bills would apply the protections in the existing federal law to New York State,” Stavisky said.
Specifically, the bill would mandate confidentiality, regardless of the person’s immigration status.
It would bar state and local law enforcement from inquiring about the immigration status of victims or witnesses during a domestic violence investigation, or from turning victims seeking assistance over to federal authorities.
It also would allow judges to consider whether a convicted abuser threatened the victim with deportation as an aggravating circumstance during sentencing.
Meng and Stavisky said abusers in such cases often use the threat of deportation to keep a victim from going to authorities.
They said the law’s protections also would apply to men who are the victims in an abusive relationship.
Several women’s advocates attending the press conference last Thursday said the law has been reauthorized numerous times since 1994 with bipartisan support.
“Look at these apartment buildings here along Queens Boulevard,” said Jennifer Ching, executive director of Queens Legal Services. “I guarantee you there are women in these buildings suffering from abuse.”
They blamed House Republicans for what they called an attempt to water down the law needlessly.
Helen Kim of the Korean American Family Service Center said deaths in domestic cases were down by more than 30 percent among women and by more than 50 percent among men.
“VAWA has worked,” Kim said. “This new bill is not the real VAWA.”
Ivy Suriyopas, an attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said reauthorizing the law without protections for all women is unacceptable.
“Our legal system exists to ensure that criminals are brought to justice, not to punish victims,” she said.
Desiree Jordan, founder of UniteWomenNY, agreed.
“No woman should fear seeking justice or legal protection,” Jordan said. “The New York Violence Against Women Act will ensure that in this state, victims of domestic violence will not be turned away or have their identities exposed because of their immigration status.”
Stavisky did say that the accusers’ identities still are required to come out eventually during the normal course of criminal proceedings, as required should the case result in charges and a trial.