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General Assembly approves VOICES Act in a win for domestic violence and immigrant rights advocates

SPRINGFIELD (May 31, 2018)--The Illinois Legislature on Thursday passed Senate Bill 34, the Voices of Immigrant Communities Empowering Survivors (VOICES) Act, which would increase protections for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, trafficking, and other offenses that have come to the forefront of Illinois politics through the #MeToo movement.

The bill was championed by Senate President John Cullerton, State Representative Lisa Hernandez, and the Campaign for a Welcoming Illinois, a diverse grassroots coalition dedicated to making all Illinoisans live in welcoming and secure conditions. It passed the House 75-38 with bipartisan support.

Senate Bill 34 requires that “law enforcement agencies respond to federal U and T visa certification forms within 90 days.” U and T visas provide eligibility for immigrant survivors to work in the United States. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, three out of four physical assaults and four out of five rapes never get reported to police. This bill will encourage immigrant survivors to report these incidents. Under federal law, survivors who cooperate with the detection, investigation, and/or prosecution of the crime are provided with a path toward economic stability at a time when they are attempting to gain independence from their abusers. The VOICES Act provides a 90 business day time frame (in most cases) for a qualifying agency to certify that the person is a victim. The survivor must still apply for the U and T visa through the federal government, but cannot do so without a certification form from the agency.

“I have constituents who are directly affected by this bill, including Genoveva Ramirez, a 67-year old undocumented grandmother who was attacked in a home invasion alongside her grandson, and was left in legal limbo after attempting to get her U visa,” said Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) who is the bill’s chief House sponsor. “This bill has a direct effect on people in my district, and even if it didn’t, supporting this is the right thing to do.”

“Our problem is that not all state agencies understand federal visa law--some are are not filling out certification forms, or they are applying their own homebrew standards for what counts for certification,” said Lawrence Benito, CEO of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), a convening organization of the Campaign for Welcoming Illinois. “We have negotiated with law enforcement officials throughout this process to make sure their concerns are met and this bill is not an unnecessary burden on anyone.”

A 2017 report released by ICIRR titled Unequal Protection: Disparate Protection of Immigrant Victims in Cook, the Collar Counties, and Beyond found disparate handling of certification cases when comparing Cook County and other areas.

The bill is part of a slate of other bills supported by ICIRR and the Campaign for a Welcoming Illinois in the 2018 legislative session, including the Anti-Registry Program Act (SB 3488) and the Immigration Safe Zones Act (SB 35).

The legislation passed the Senate on April 26, 2018, with a 37-9 vote.

“The National Immigrant Justice Center has reported that there is a decrease in the number of immigrant survivors of domestic violence who are willing to pursue orders of protection and this is just one example of how this bill can a help women,” said Carrie Boyd, the Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which advocates for policies that keep domestic violence survivors safe and holds batterers accountable. “Coming forward about domestic violence or leaving any abusive situation is one of the hardest things anyone can do, and immigrant survivors face additional obstacles when attempting to speak out. This bill helps to eliminate these obstacles.”

“As an organization that serves immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault every day, we know that our survivors face enormous barriers to coming forward. The VOICES Act is a victory for our community,” said Neusa Gaytan, Senior Vice President of Programs a Mujeres Latinas en Accion. “U visas are crucial empowerment tools for our survivors--helping them feel safe to seek justice and helping them gain economic self-sufficiency necessary to live lives free of violence. The VOICES Act helps remove tools of control and coercion from perpetrators, and gives survivors a voice. This bill shows immigrant survivors that they have rights in Illinois, and that they can speak out without fear, knowing that they will be believed and supported.”

“Our laws need to recognize that all crime survivors need safeguards regardless of their country of origin,” said Senate President Cullerton. “This will make all of Illinois safer by removing barriers to reporting domestic violence and sexual assault crimes.”

“We are standardizing the path to certification, and illuminating the path to self-empowerment for women,” said said Rep. Margo McDermed (R-Mokena). “When people in communities feel safe enough to come forward about violent crimes, our communities become safer. We are hoping that Governor Rauner will sign this bipartisan bill quickly.”

The bill will now go to Governor Rauner’s desk for a signature.

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