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Congress moves to reauthorize laws targeting domestic violence, human trafficking


A woman in Bangalore, India, holds candles and a placard during a protest against human trafficking organized by a nongovernmental organization. AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

Even as it was still settling in, the 113th Congress moved quickly to break a logjam that had delayed reauthorization of two laws that have had strong backing from the ABA and an array of human rights organizations. On March 7, President Barack Obama signed a bill that reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, both of which had expired in 2011.

Reauthorization allows Congress to modify laws at regular intervals, and federal legislators took advantage of the opportunity to expand the reach of both acts. Reauthorization efforts stalled in the 112th Congress partly because of partisan disagreement on some of those changes, especially whether more segments of the U.S. population should be covered by the Violence Against Women Act.

First enacted in 1994, VAWA is the centerpiece of the federal government’s commitment to combating domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and other violent crimes against intimate partners. The act was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 with little opposition.

The ABA has expressed support for expanding the scope of VAWA’s protections. “Expanding protections for Native Americans, campus victims, survivors of sexual assault and victims of violence, regardless of immigration status—and for the first time including protections for lesbian, gay and bisexual victims—is a critical victory for human dignity,” said ABA President Laurel G. Bellows in a statement issued after Congress passed the reauthorization act. She is principal of the Bellows Law Group in Chicago.

The new law also reauthorized the Legal Assistance for Victims program, which provides funding to support competent pro bono legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Support from the program has helped the ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence to mobilize the legal profession to provide legal assistance for victims in this area, especially through training programs and technical assistance.

“VAWA reauthorization is always a triumph for survivors, and this time is no different,” says Rebecca Henry, the commission’s deputy chief counsel. But she says this reauthorization is a landmark piece of legislation. “In 2013 and forward, as a country we can say that no one is turned away from VAWA-funded services on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that all Native survivors can call on their local police and prosecutors for protection from domestic violence. That was never true before.”


Efforts also had stalled during the 112th Congress to extend programs under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, another law that had been reauthorized three times before with bipartisan support. During this year’s debate on the VAWA reauthorization bill, the Senate accepted an amendment by Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., that attached trafficking victim provisions to it.

The new version of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act expands the reach of a national hotline and creates grants to help states assist child victims of sex trafficking. The revisions also will help foreign governments investigate possible trafficking by labor recruitment centers and strengthen the ability of U.S. prosecutors to bring trafficking cases.

Bellows describes human trafficking as “a silent crime that is a scourge that has to be eradicated.” At the start of her term last August, she created a Task Force on Human Trafficking to coordinate the ABA’s efforts to focus more attention on the issue, develop policies aimed at eradicating trafficking in the United States and around the world, and increase support for lawyers who represent trafficking victims, especially on a pro bono basis.

President Obama also has taken steps to focus more attention on the issue by the federal government, including prohibitions against trafficking activities by federal contractors and subcontractors and creation of the Global Business Coalition Against Trafficking.

This report is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government. Rhonda McMillion is editor of ABA Washington Letter, a Governmental Affairs Office publication.

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