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Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. BLUMENTHAL. Madam President, I want to first of all begin on this day when Connecticut, like other New England States, is digging out from an historic, truly an epic, snowstorm, to give my thanks to the first responders and to the men and women who have been working behind snowplows and payloaders for endless hours, literally almost without stop since the beginning of this snowstorm, and have risked their lives, given boundlessly of their energy and effort to make sure the people of Connecticut and also Massachusetts, our neighbor, and New York, have been made safer and more secure during this time of another monstrous storm.

I know much of America in the more temperate zones may not appreciate what a monstrous snowstorm, carrying 3 feet of snow to many parts of Connecticut, poses in the way of challenges and even threats to human life. And I would say without any disrespect--in fact, with great admiration to the Presiding Officer, who happens to be from Hawaii--that it is unlikely in her State that anything approaching this magnitude of snow ever will be approaching. But I know that Hawaii, like every other State, shares its need to confront weather crises, and I believe that as a Nation we have always come together, whether it is tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods, to address these common challenges and we rally together as a Nation. So I hope we will again.

The relief is necessary, and the President has issued a declaration of emergency for Connecticut. I thank him for that action, and I hope it will be followed by tangible aid that will be necessary in the wake of this monstrous storm.

I come to the floor to talk about the action and bill I hope will be approved later today or as soon as possible. The Senate is considering the Violence Against Women Act. I am a cosponsor and a strong supporter. I wish to particularly thank Chairman Leahy, who has demonstrated such patience and perseverance. If the definition of courage is grace under pressure, he certainly has shown tremendous grace under huge pressure. Again, we face the need, a pressing need to reauthorize this measure.

It was first passed 18 years ago and was permitted to expire during the last Congress. The Senate passed this measure during the last Congress by an overwhelming bipartisan vote. It was stalled and then stopped in the House of Representatives. I thank Chairman Leahy for his excellent work on this essential legislation. Partly, it was stalled over a measure that demands particular focus today. This legislation is critical to the 54,000 Connecticut women who became domestic violence victims in 2011. But it is particularly so to many of our Native Americans and to women who right now are, in effect, caught in a legal limbo when they seek prosecutorial action to vindicate their rights and to deter this cruel and unspeakable form of violence against them.

Native Americans' predicament is described very compellingly by a New York Times story this morning. The New York Times tells the story of Diane Millich, a Native American woman who was abused for years by her husband. She is one of 60 percent of Native American women who will experience domestic abuse. That number is 60 percent. One-third of Native American women are assaulted during their lifetime. Native American women are 2 1/2 times more likely to be raped than non-Native American women.

The provisions of this bill that apply to Native American women are meant to address literally an epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault that right now the law fails to deter and prevent. By any measure, this epidemic is a tragedy. In human terms, the numbers are powerful, but they fail to give a face and a voice to this problem, as the Times did this morning with Diane Millich.

These statistics are the result of Federal law that prevents tribal courts from hearing cases against non-Native American abusers of Native American women. It is a limbo that is the result of a jurisdictional catch-22. If the abuser is a non-Native American, the tribal courts have no jurisdiction. But if the crime occurs on sovereign tribal land, Federal prosecutors face a variety of obstacles to effective enforcement. So this measure would protect Native American women who right now are so much the victims of abuse.

I know Senator Cornyn has just spoken about his amendment that would, he has said, protect the potential defendants, protect their constitutional rights under the Bill of Rights. His amendment is not before us. What is before us is Senator Coburn's amendment which would, in effect, eviscerate these protections for women against those defendants. I wish to respond, though, to Senator Cornyn, who has raised, thoughtfully and pertinently, some important questions about this legislation.

Let me answer in two very affirmative and unequivocal ways. First of all, this bill would protect all the rights currently guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Second, it would provide a right of appeal, first to the tribal courts in whatever process that is provided there but then by habeas corpus to Federal courts where actually the Bill of Rights would apply with full force, in my view, as I read this bill.

Senators should be clear when they vote on this measure that the Coburn amendment, in my view, would destroy, utterly undermine and eviscerate the purpose of this bill and provisions of this bill that are designed to protect Native Americans against domestic violence and assault, and it would fully guarantee protections under our Bill of Rights to defendants who are charged, civilly or criminally, in the tribal courts.

No woman should be left defenseless because of the identity of their abuser. Every woman deserves to know she is protected by the law of the land. Again, I thank and commend Senator Leahy for addressing this important issue in the legislation before us by giving all Native American women the protections of these tribal courts. I don't understand why this should be controversial. We are still facing efforts to strip this provision from the bill. I urge my colleagues to approve it.

I also commend Senator Leahy for offering an amendment that contains the bulk of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. I am a cosponsor of that measure and proudly of this amendment as well. He has been the leader in this body and in the Congress and the Nation against human trafficking. He has been a mentor to many of us on this issue. I am very proud to cosponsor this very important amendment.

Human trafficking remains a scourge in our world and in our country. It is not some distant abstract problem. It is here and now in the United States, the greatest Nation in the history of our world, and we have an obligation to counter and combat it as this very important amendment would do. It relies on partnerships between the States and Federal Government, between the public and private sectors, and between the United States and other countries. It allows one piece of the legislation to achieve a massive impact and global reach. Twenty-seven million human beings are bought and sold as property each year, more than at any time in our history. We must have a solution as broad and wide-ranging as the problem we face.

The Leahy amendment allows the Federal Government to leverage a small outlay of taxpayer dollars into a giant system of protections and services for victims of human trafficking, not to mention law enforcement actions to put the perpetrators of trafficking behind bars, put them in prison where they belong, and send a message of deterrence as well as punishment.

This landmark proposal also creates new grant programs to help our law enforcement agencies and service providers respond to sex trafficking of American children--American children who are victims of sex traffic. This amendment would help to protect them. These grant programs will help to ensure that child victims of sex trafficking have access to services they need and justice they deserve. They are children, but they are no less deserving of justice. That proposition ought to be so obvious as not to need stating in this Chamber. I know, for the purposes of this body, it need not be stated. But the Leahy amendment recognizes that the traffickers' most effective weapon is simply the ability to take the victims' identification documents. This measure would make that taking a crime, taking away identification documents.

The Leahy amendment also recognizes that the statute of limitations designed for other contexts is an unjustified impediment to effective private enforcement in the trafficking area. It extends the statute from 6 years to 10 years for civil suits involving violations of Federal trafficking laws. That statute of limitations may simply be an obstacle that cannot be overcome because the witnesses cannot be provided and because the children themselves may have to grow, in both maturity and physically, before they can effectively help prosecute a civil or criminal action.

I have also cosponsored an amendment with Senator Portman, and I am proud to have done so, to ensure that youth grants provided under section 302 of VAWA can be made available to child victims of sex trafficking. In this country, sex trafficking remains a problem, a serious problem. There are an estimated 293,000 children at risk for commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that between 2008 and 2010, 83 percent of sex trafficking victims found in the United States were U.S. citizens and 40 percent of sex trafficking cases involved sexual exploitation of children.

The fact is a tragic one, an unacceptable and intolerable fact, that sex trafficking is a major source of child exploitation, a major source of damage to our children, and the voices and faces of those children should be before this body when it considers this amendment.

It is a bipartisan amendment cosponsored by Senators GILLIBRAND, BROWN, COLLINS, AYOTTE, RUBIO, and COCHRAN. I thank them for their leadership on this issue, most especially Senator Rob Portman, my partner in this effort, and I again thank Senator Leahy for his leadership, which has inspired us to bring our amendment forward. I encourage my colleagues to support the Leahy amendment as well as the one Senator Portman and I and others have brought before this body and the underlying VAWA legislation. We have an opportunity to make history. We have an obligation to pass this measure and make history. I hope we will do so by the same overwhelming bipartisan vote that we did in the last session of Congress so the House of Representatives hears our message, and it is a message from the country: Domestic violence will not be tolerated. We will come to the aid of Native American women and all women who are victims of this heinous crime.


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