US: Two key rights laws set to expire

Powerful advocacy groups are mobilising their resources to ensure that key provisions of two of the United States’ landmark civil liberties laws are not allowed to expire because of Congressional failure to renew them. The laws are the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), originally passed in 1994, and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. “For 10 years, VAWA has provided needed support to women, children and men facing violence,” says the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, a coalition of more than

2,000 organisations dedicated to ending violence against women. Reauthorisation legislation, already introduced by a bipartisan group of sponsors in both houses of Congress, would enhance the civil and criminal justice response, improve services and outreach to victims, and provide resources for sexual assault victims through rape crisis centres and state coalitions.

It would also help children and youth who experience or witness violence, address the needs of victims from communities of colour, aid immigrant and tribal victims, and support prevention, health, housing and economic security programmes designed to stop violence and help victims.

Congress reauthorised the VAWA in 2000, adding services for rural, older and immigrant women, as well as those with disabilities. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the key immigration provisions in the reauthorisation bill would stop the deportation of immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking; extend immigration relief to victims of family violence; guarantee economic security for immigrant victims and their children; and provide an economic safety net for trafficking victims. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the ACLU said that VAWA “has dramatically improved the law enforcement response to violence against women and has provided critical services necessary to support women and children in their struggle to overcome abusive situations.” Ruth Anne Robbins, an associate law professor at the Rutgers University Domestic Violence Clinic, told IPS that domestic violence is the most prevalent crime in the US — by a large margin.

“Without VAWA literally tens or hundreds of thousands of domestic violence victims would go without critical and life-saving services,” she said. Meanwhile, the storied Voting Rights Act (VRA), signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the aftermath of the “Bloody Sunday” beatings of civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama — and the murder of two participants — also contains major provisions that are due to expire in 2007. The 1965 law recognised that many states, counties and cities would continue to erect barriers to minority political participation. Four presidents — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — supported expansion of key parts of the law. The act also opened the political process for many of the nearly 5,000 Latinos who now hold public office, including more than

250 who serve at the state or federal level. Each time the law has been renewed by Congress, a Republican president has ratified the bill. On signing the 1982 extension, Pres. Reagan called the right to vote the “crown-jewel” of US liberties. —IPS