House panel approves bill cutting abuse services at St. Albans center

By Nicole Gaudiano

May 8, 2012

WASHINGTON — Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee tried but failed on Tuesday to strip a provision in a domestic violence bill that would steer immigration work away from Vermont.

The House version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization, which the committee passed Tuesday, includes a provision that would redistribute the responsibility for processing certain petitions from immigrants to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services investigative officers at local service centers.

Currently, 60 specially trained officers at the Vermont Service Center in St. Albans have the exclusive responsibility under VAWA for handling such “I-360 self petitions,” which allow immigrants seeking to flee abusive relationships to apply for lawful U.S. status on their own, without the help of a sponsor.

The Vermont Service Center would handle some of these petitions under the House version of the bill, but it would no longer be responsible for handling all of them. Vermont congressional delegation members say they’re working to ensure the St. Albans VAWA unit’s work remains intact.

“Congress should not be in the businesses of micromanaging personnel decisions,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who is not a committee member, in a statement. “The employees in St. Albans are incredibly competent and well trained to handle sensitive and complicated immigration cases. It simply makes no sense for Congress to break up this group of dedicated professionals.”

The Republican-led committee defeated at least two attempts by Democrats to strike the provision and others that were not included in the Senate-passed bill authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The “misguided effort to undercut” the handling of VAWA self-petitions at the Vermont Service Center is one example of House Republican provisions that would “endanger victims in many ways,” Leahy said in a statement.

“Agents at district USCIS offices around the country lack the highly-specialized training of the dedicated agents of the Vermont Service Center,” Leahy said. “Reallocating this work to district offices across the country will have the consequence of encouraging fraud in the system, as well as delaying needed support for real victims of domestic and sexual abuse, and endangering those victims by failing to protect their confidentiality and safety.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said “petty partisanship” is behind the provision.

“There is no sound managerial reason to break up the competent, specially-trained professional operation at the Citizenship and Immigration Services Vermont Service Center in St. Albans,” Sanders said in a statement. “The attempt to change a system that works well is petty partisanship even by the low standards of the House Republicans.”

House bill supporters say local service centers should handle these petitions to reduce fraud and to ensure proper interviews are being conducted and that victims are getting the care they need close to home. The bill would also require officers to conduct in-person interviews with the petitioner and allow the officers to gather other evidence — including an interview with the U.S. citizen whom they accuse of abuse. Currently, applications are confidential for the petitioner’s safety.

Advocates for immigrants and domestic violence victims say allowing federal agents to contact alleged abusers, potentially informing them of the victim’s plans, is dangerous. And they want to keep the processing of self petitions centralized in Vermont, where the investigators have special training on domestic violence and on spotting fraud.

The Vermont investigators don’t conduct face-to-face interviews with victims. But there is often evidence or certification from law enforcement officials that helps them make their decisions.

Along with I-360 VAWA self petitions, the 60-member division also processes all visas designated for victims of human trafficking and victims willing to assist law enforcement in criminal investigations. The House bill would not change that.

Source: Burlington Free Press