Congress Must Take This Critical Step to Protect Immigrant Survivors

A “Caravan of Love” march in support of immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis on Feb. 11, 2017. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

For immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking and other gender-based violence, access to economic resources and healthcare are critical to finding pathways to safety and security. 

Yet, U.S. immigration and welfare policies have limited access to the public safety net for many lawfully present immigrants for over two decades, including an arbitrary five-year waiting period—often referred to as the “five-year bar”—for some programs that delays crucial access to life-saving benefits and services for immigrant communities. 

Congress now has the opportunity to remedy these harms and take a critical step towards protecting immigrant survivors. Congress must pass the LIFT the BAR Act, H.R. 5227, introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and other co-sponsors. 

The LIFT the BAR Act restores access to federal assistance programs like Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), by removing the five-year bar and other barriers that deny critical care and aid to people who are lawfully present. This includes people with “green cards,” Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), crime victims, COFA migrants, child maltreatment victims and orphans who hold Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and other noncitizens residing lawfully in the United States. 

While Congress has enacted important protections for immigrant survivors in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Victims and Trafficking Protection Act (VTPA) and other laws, immigration-related restrictions on safety-net benefits have not followed, threatening the safety, autonomy and well-being of immigrant survivors and their families.

Without access to economic and health benefits, immigrant survivors are often forced to rely on abusive family members or exploitative employers to meet their basic needs. Many survivors face abusive partners who actively prevent or sabotage them from obtaining economic independence as a means of power and control. 

Strengthening economic support for families is one of the strategies highlighted by the CDC for preventing and reducing the harm of intimate partner violence.

Access to public benefits can make the difference between a survivor being able to escape and overcome violence and exploitation, or facing continued abuse and trauma. In fact, in one survey, two-thirds of survivors said that they stayed longer than they wanted or returned to an abusive relationship because of financial concerns, such as not being able to pay bills, afford rent or mortgage or feed their family.

When survivors can access basic needs for themselves and their children, they avoid being forced back into abusive or unsafe situations, destitution or homelessness. With more economic stability, survivors can build back and recover from the pain and trauma of violence. In fact, strengthening economic support for families is one of the strategies highlighted by the CDC for preventing and reducing the harm of intimate partner violence.

The impacts of restrictions on benefits for immigrant survivors and their children have long-term implications for the health and wellbeing of our communities at large. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has posed additional challenges for survivors’ safety, while also disproportionately impacting immigrants, who have been on the frontlines of the crisis. 23 million immigrants make up one in five individuals in the essential workforce. 

Immigrants are also significantly more likely to be uninsured, impacting their ability to seek healthcare during a public health crisis. In 2019, among the non-elderly population, one-quarter of lawfully present immigrants were uninsured, and of income-eligible immigrants excluded from Medicaid, 13 percent are “green card” holders.

Proudly endorsed by dozens of local, state and national organizations, the LIFT the BAR Act is a critical step forward in ensuring that immigrant communities and immigrant survivors of gender-based violence have access to the economic resources and healthcare they need to live safely and thrive. 

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Michele Ko (she/her) is a policy associate at the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence (API-GBV) where she supports policy/advocacy efforts for the AANHPI community, and an MPH student at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.