'Voices Act' Could Protect Undocumented Immigrants Who Are Sexual Assault Survivors

Jun 13, 2018

State Rep. Lisa Hernandez flanked by other Illinois House lawmakers and advocates, addresses the media on May 22
Credit Sam Dunklau / NPR Illinois

Immigrants' rights advocates are close to celebrating what they consider a win in Illinois, especially for domestic abuse survivors. They are hoping Gov. Bruce Rauner will sign 'The Voices Act' soon, as it passed out of the state's General Assembly during the final days of the spring legislative session.

The measure would help undocumented immigrant survivors of sexual assault earn temporary status and protection. It would give state police a three month window to report abuse to the federal government - who then can provide U visas, used for victims of crime who are willing to work with prosecutors and investigators.

Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition For Immigrant and Refugee Rights says The Voices Act would "largely benefit immigrant women."

"We are living in a #MeToo moment right now," Tsao said. "It's really incumbent upon law enforcement and the rest of us to believe these women and to facilitate their coming forward."

In the past, Tsao says law enforcement has taken too long to take claims from undocumented immigrant women seriously. "Unfortunately we’ve seen too often law enforcement ignoring these requests or refusing to complete them," he said.

Tsao says increased limits on qualifications for asylum status, recently announced by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, would not change the scope of the measure, since it deals with those who are already in the US. Sessions has said victims of domestic abuse and gang violence generally won't qualify. Tsao said that decision is "horrible."

"It will slam the door on many people who have suffered abuse and neglect in their home countries and these are cases that should be strongly considered for asylum or help," said Tsao.

Part of the goal of The Voices Act is to help women who are brought to the US against their will as part of human trafficking operations. It comes on the heels of The Trust Act, signed by Gov. Rauner last year - which limits the amount state authorities work with the federal government when it comes to identifying undocumented immigrants. It also calls for not jailing immigrants based solely on their status. It's not clear yet if the governor will also support The Voices Act.