Local domestic violence experts sent Congresswoman Judy Biggert to Washington, D.C., in February with a tough mission to oppose fellow Republicans when voting on the primary federal law that targets domestic violence.
On Thursday, she met with that same group in Aurora as one of only two female members of the House GOP to vote against her chamber's version of the Violence Against Women Act. Biggert sought advice from the experts on how to insert at least two political lighting rods into a compromise when the legislation heads to a likely conference committee with the Democrat-controlled Senate.
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Biggert said Thursday she'll continue to push for equal domestic violence protections for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) individuals and undocumented immigrant women despite the partisan voting on the legislation so far. Biggert told representatives from the Mutual Ground shelter in Aurora, the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Crisis Center for South Suburbia that election year partisanship and political ideology are blocking what she believes are common sense provisions.
"I don't think many of our members communicated with the shelters and providers to really know the ins and outs of this issue," Biggert said. Shelter providers at the Thursday meeting told Biggert the House plan is "absurd." If two battered women came to a shelter for protection, and one of them happened to be a lesbian, the lesbian woman would be turned away, experts said.
"No person is immune from sexual assault, therefore no person should be left off the bill as far as being protected," said Michelle Meyer, executive director of Mutual Ground. "When this bill first came out we sent a very clear message that we don't tolerate violence against women at all. Now it feels like there's been a rollback."
Biggert said she's not sure where the compromise is on the LGBT issue in the legislation. However, she plans to send a letter to the conference committee, using real world stories from the domestic violence experts she met with. The point of those stories will be to show why members of the LGBT community are just as deserving of help in domestic violence situation as any other woman.
A similar case can be made for undocumented immigrant women who are abused, experts said. But Biggert believes the holdup with undocumented immigrants as it relates to the Violence Against Women Act is really a symptom of a larger problem.
"We haven't really solved the immigration problems that we have," Biggert said. "Nobody has come up with the silver bullet on that. And I don't think there is one."
Experts said the House GOP version of the domestic violence legislation increases the potential for a woman to be deported when she reports domestic abuse if she is also in the country illegally. Experts said many women in that situation will simply continue to endure the abuse.
There is a battle over whether and how many undocumented women who report abuse should be given U visas. A U visa gives victims of certain crimes legal status and work eligibility in the United States for up to four years. There are only 10,000 of those visas issued each fiscal year. But some lawmakers fear potential fraud in giving undocumented women preferred status for U visas. The idea is that there may be an increase in false abuse reports if undocumented immigrants begin to see reporting such a crime as a path to legal residency.
Experts told Biggert that scenario is very unlikely. It would be foolish to try and trick the federal government to gain legal residency, experts said.
"In my experience, I think that undocumented individuals do their best to avoid the federal government if they can," said Brandon Jones, of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
All experts on the panel thanked Biggert for taking a stand against her party on the legislation. Biggert is running in the new 11th Congressional District against a former Congressional colleague, Democrat Bill Foster. Biggert said she's not worried about any potential loss of party backing while she's engaged in one of the hottest races in the country.
"I'm kind of known for it sometimes," Biggert said. "I vote for something if I think it's right."
Foster's campaign was contacted but did not provide comment for this story.