House immigration bill would cut services at St. Albans center for abuse victims

By Nicole Gaudiano

May 6, 2012

WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, a special unit at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Vermont Service Center in St. Albans has processed petitions from immigrants seeking to flee abusive relationships and apply for lawful U.S. status on their own without the help of a sponsor.

These 60 specially trained officers have the exclusive responsibility for handling thousands of such “I-360” self-petitions each year from across the country under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the landmark 1994 law designed to assist victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

That would change under a House Republican bill to reauthorize the law.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Sandy Adams of Florida, would redistribute responsibility for processing I-360 VAWA self-petitions to investigative officers at local CIS service centers, reducing the workload at the Vermont Service Center at a time when it’s hiring new federal employees. The Vermont Service Center would handle some of these petitions, but it would no longer be responsible for handling all of them.

The bill, which the House Judiciary Committee will discuss Tuesday, 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.

Bill supporters say decentralizing I-360 VAWA self-petition processing would ensure victims are getting the help they need close to home. And offering U.S. citizens a chance to tell their side of the story would help reduce false allegations from immigrants looking for an easy path to a green card.

“Nobody looks (the petitioner) in the eyes to see, what kind of woman is this? Is she telling the truth?” said David Brannon of Voice of American Immigration Fraud Victims. He says his ex-wife, a Russian immigrant, falsely accused him of abusing her to help obtain a green card without his sponsorship. “It’s all a paperwork process with Vermont.”

But advocates for immigrants and domestic violence victims oppose the changes, which are not included in the Senate-passed version of the bill authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Allowing federal agents to contact alleged abusers, potentially informing them of the victim’s plans, is “just incredibly dangerous,” said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

If that were allowed, “the federal agent is thwarting the efforts of the survivor to maintain their personal safety,” she said. “It makes me short of breath.”

These advocates say they also oppose the idea of removing the centralized processing of I-360 VAWA self petitions from the Vermont Service Center, where the investigators have special training on domestic violence and on spotting fraud.

“They’re able to see patterns or things that jump out that don’t look right because they’re seeing all of them,” said Rebecca Stout, legal services coordinator for the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “It’s harder obviously to have that big picture if you’re talking about all of these being processed at a local level.”

During the late 1990s, self petitions under VAWA were processed at the local level and “it was a disaster,” said Grace Huang, policy program coordinator for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“It was so hit and miss on who had any training on domestic violence and how to interview people and not re-traumatize them and even who knew the law,” she said.

Advocates from across the country pushed for a centralized process to promote quality control and training, she said. That led to the exclusive processing of these self petitions by the 60-member VAWA unit at the Vermont Service Center in 2000.

The 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.

Last fiscal year, the unit approved 4,238 of the petitions and denied 1,964, according to USCIS.

The Department of Homeland Security is pleased with the outcome, saying in a 2010 report to Congress that the VAWA unit is best suited to distinguish legitimate applications from fraudulent ones.

“Without the well-trained and specialized staff working in the VAWA unit, it would be difficult for USCIS to process each application timely, efficiently, fairly and with victim safety in mind,” the report states.

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.

The Vermont Service Center, a regional center which processes numerous benefit applications, has about 700 federal and contract employees at its St. Albans office and 250 at its Essex office. It plans to fill about 100 vacancies and add about 100 federal employees, with perhaps a few going to the VAWA unit. It’s unclear how the House bill would affect employment at the center.

Officials from the Vermont Service Center would not comment for this story. The agency does not discuss pending legislation, said Chris Bentley, a USCIS spokesman.

Brannon, of the Voice of American Immigration Fraud Victims, said he’s been lobbying since 2008 for USCIS to process VAWA self-petitions at the local level and interview the accused. If they had in his case, he believes his wife’s petition would have been denied.

“Why should I not be able to tell my side of the story and defend my name?” he asked.

Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee say they received written statements from more than 20 people who maintained they were victims of marriage fraud or falsely accused as part of VAWA self petitions.

But Erica Chabot, spokeswoman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there is “simply no evidence” that decentralizing the handling of these petitions would reduce marriage fraud.

“In fact, fraud may increase if adjudication decentralization were to occur since the knowledgeable and experienced Vermont staff would no longer be reviewing all applications,” she said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, plans to introduce amendments to the bill Tuesday.

“Moving petition processing from the Vermont facility, with specialized professionals trained on these matters, to regional offices places new burdens on field operatives without the proper training or resources to handle these sensitive issues,” said Lofgren, the top Democrat on the Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee. “Worse yet, the House Republican bill eliminates longstanding protections for immigrant women by having officers notify spouses a petition has been filed, putting both abused women and officers at risk from enraged spouses.”

Source: Burlington Free Press