The Violence Against Women Act has been a lifeline for countless abused women. The act, first passed in 1994 and due to be reauthorized next year, contains a host of programs including stiffer penalties for batterers, funding for women's shelters, and the creation of a national domestic violence hotline.
But the law has a potential flaw, too: A small fraction of the time, it may also provide incentive for immigrant husbands and wives to fake domestic abuse.
Hundreds of American men say their foreign wives exploited a section of VAWA that helps victims of spousal abuse to remain in the United States even if they exit their marriage. The spurned husbands say their immigrant spouses have lied to police, judges, and women's shelters in their efforts to manufacture evidence of abuse.
David Brannon, a 46-year-old project manager at a telecommunications firm in McLean, Va., says he met a Russian woman named Elena Neroda through an online dating service in 2005. After several months of e-mails and phone calls, Brannon traveled to her hometown of Rostov-on-Don to propose. Soon after, Elena moved to the United States on a fiance visa, and the couple was married in a civil ceremony. "At the time I was really sure of myself, really sure of her," Brannon says. "I really felt I had met my soul mate."
Brannon says he was sent reeling when, in April 2007, Elena filed for a temporary restraining order, alleging that he had threatened and pushed her. The restraining order was dismissed due to insufficient evidence eight days later, but the ordeal still cost Brannon thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Brannon says he was a victim of a provision in VAWA that allows battered immigrant women and men to receive green cards and other benefits. He believes Elena never loved him at all and that she had planned to accuse him of domestic abuse from the first moment they made contact online.
Elena did not respond to my numerous e-mails; in court documents, however, she called Brannon "a psychotic idiot" and "crazy" and said that he repeatedly told her he would kill her. Her complaint for divorce alleged that Brannon "engaged in excessively vicious conduct," which included verbal abuse and "striking her with objects of furniture and cooking pans." (Charles Castle, Elena's lawyer, did not return several phone calls; one of his staff members told me he would not comment because Elena's case is now closed.)
It's tempting to dismiss Brannon's version of the story. Men in his position have a vested interest in declaring themselves innocent of the abuse accusations. Some of them found their younger, more attractive spouses on dating sites that are essentially mail-order-bride catalogs, and I talked to a few men who were zealously anti-feminist. One told me that "femi-nazis" have colluded with the U.S. government to turn men into second-class citizens.
Some women's rights activists dismiss the idea of VAWA fraud. "It isn't something that we hear about or see," said Sameera Hafiz, a senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, the nation's oldest women's legal defense fund. But the intimations of fraud aren't just coming from angry ex-husbands (and a few wives). Immigration agents, lawyers, and the brokers who facilitate marriages between Americans and foreigners say that VAWA is sometimes exploited. No one knows how widespread the fraud might be, though it's probably a small portion of all the spouses who apply for immigration relief saying they've been abused. In 2009, 8,534 people tried to gain permanent residency through VAWA's abuse provision, and 73 percent succeeded. Government databases don't track how many of the 2,000 or so denials were turned down on suspicions of fraud, as opposed to another reason such as lack of evidence.
The opportunity for fraud may be a small harm that's necessary to prevent more serious wrongdoing. Before the act was passed, only an American spouse could file an application for a marriage visa. This meant that an abusive husband or wife could threaten to withhold immigration sponsorship as a tool of control. VAWA tried to change that, by allowing abused spouses, parents, or children of American citizens or permanent residents to "self-petition," that is, to file for permanent residency themselves.
There are clear benefits to self-petitioning. Once approved, the applicant gets to bypass an otherwise mandatory two-year conditional period. If any deportation proceedings have been started, they are halted. Successful petitioners are also eligible for benefits such as food stamps, subsidized housing, and Medicaid. For immigrant women caught in a prison of domestic violence, these benefits are the lifelines that make it possible to start over.
Still, does the government's handling of the petitions make it too easy to fake abuse? John Sampson, a former investigator for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, thinks so: Petitions are regularly approved based on allegations of abuse rather than hard evidence, he says. Although the official benchmark is "clear and convincing evidence," Sampson says immigration authorities make no effort to validate documents submitted by a wife claiming abuse, do not interview her, and discount evidence from the American husband that contradicts the abuse claim. "It's a paper chase," he says of the lack of follow-up.
Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for USCIS, counters by saying that 50 trained agents at a central processing center in Saint Albans, Vt., examine each VAWA abuse case carefully. The center takes about six months to approve or deny a self-petition. "We consider any credible evidence," Rhatigan told me, "which might be affidavits from police, judges, court, school officials, social service agencies, and clergy." Agents also look for orders of protection and photographs of injuries, and for evidence that the applicant went to a women's shelter or met with a psychologist or counselor. Rhatigan confirmed that the Vermont Service Center does not interview either spouse.
The relatively lenient standard of proof is in place for good reason. Several decades of research show that the dynamics of domestic abuse make it difficult for women to report and document the crimes against them. A wife may be financially reliant on her husband, or she might come from a culture that discourages involving outsiders in family matters. Making it more difficult for battered immigrant women to get help would clearly be a step in the wrong direction. "I am quite ok with what I believe to be the miniscule number of fraud cases that might slip through an otherwise good, working system," Alizabeth Newman, a law professor at the City University of New York, wrote in an August 2009 e-mail to a group of domestic abuse advocates reviewing the VAWA immigration provision. Newman has a point: Interviewing applicants and investigating the evidence they provide would be expensive. It may not be cost-effective to weed out the likely very small number of bogus claims.
Still, some immigration and women's rights activists agree that measures should be in place to guard against immigrants looking to exploit the law's permissiveness. "Credibility must be established," says Leni Marin, a senior vice president at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a nonprofit focused on ending domestic and sexual violence. "By no means do we endorse fraud," she said, adding that both the lawyer representing the case and immigration authorities should make sure that any claims of abuse are legitimate.
Even so, if a wholesale overhaul of the law is a bad idea, we still shouldn't pretend that women never falsely report domestic violence or that it's a victimless crime. People who are wrongly accused can face high legal fees like Brannon's, a ruined reputation, and even jail time. Also, women who fake abuse tie up resources intended for the women who really need them. Real victims could lose their spots in shelters to fakers or miss out on legal aid. That's the opposite of the spirit of VAWA.