The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows certain immigrants who are abused by their U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR) spouses, former spouses, parents, or children to apply for permanent U.S. residence without the knowledge of the abusive family member. Some applicants face challenges applying for a VAWA green card or proving their case. This article will review who is eligible for permanent U.S. residence under VAWA, how to prove your case to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services USCIS, and common challenges VAWA applicants may face.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Updated September 1, 2022
What Is VAWA and Who Is Eligible?
In 1994, the U.S. government passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This was part of Congress’s larger Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden. VAWA was the first federal legislation aimed at assisting victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also helps protect victims of other unwanted behaviors like stalking.
Today, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversee VAWA protections.
If you have been or are being abused by a U.S. citizen or green card holder relative, you are protected by VAWA. Under VAWA, U.S. immigration law provides pathways to green cards for survivors of abusive U.S. relatives. After self-petitioning for VAWA status, you can also become eligible for U.S. permanent resident status. Applicants of all genders, not just women, are eligible to self-petition.
VAWA Eligibility Requirements
To apply for your green card, you’ll need to prove that you meet the eligibility requirements for both VAWA and green card status, including:
You are a victim of domestic abuse by your U.S. citizen or green card holder relative. Under U.S. immigration law, you must prove that you were battered or subjected to extreme cruelty by your abuser. Note that you may file even if your abuser has lost their status or did not yet have their status when the abuse began.
You must have lived with your abuser at some point during your relationship.
You are residing in the United States. Some exceptions allow you to apply while living abroad. For example, you may apply abroad if the U.S. government or armed services employed your abuser.
If abused by your U.S. citizen spouse or permanent resident spouse, you must prove you entered into the marriage in good faith. This means that you did not marry your spouse solely to obtain a green card.
You are eligible to receive an immigrant visa.
You are a person of good moral character.
You are not inadmissible to the United States and do not face any bars to adjustment. USCIS shows more leniency toward VAWA applicants on these issues. You may need to obtain specific waivers before self-petitioning.
VAWA Removes Certain Grounds for Inadmissibility and Bars to Adjustment
Often, green card applicants discover that they are ineligible for U.S. permanent resident status for a variety of reasons. If you have a criminal history or a record of any serious immigration violations, you’ll usually face an uphill battle when applying for a green card.
USCIS wants to ensure that all green card holders entered the United States legally and are not at risk of becoming public charges. You are a public charge if you would need to heavily rely on U.S. public benefits to survive in the United States.
The U.S. government recognizes that VAWA self-petitioners face unique life challenges. If you became inadmissible to the United States after an incident related to the abuse you faced, you may apply to waive these grounds for inadmissibility. With a successful waiver application, USCIS will not hold these incidents against you when considering your petition.
If USCIS has previously deported or removed you from the United States, you’ll also need to file for permission to reenter the country and receive an approval notice before you can proceed.
As a VAWA self-petitioner, you won’t be subject to any of the typical bars to adjustment that other applicants face. USCIS bars most other applicants with histories of immigration law violations or illegal entry into the United States from starting the adjustment of status process to permanent residency. However, USCIS exempts all VAWA self-petitioners and beneficiaries from these bars to adjustment.
How Do You Prove Your VAWA Case to USCIS?
To prove your VAWA case, you’ll need to provide specific supporting documents that convince USCIS of your eligibility for VAWA status. Note that due to the special circumstances of VAWA status, you won’t need to pay any filing fees or have your abusive relative sponsor you.
Prove Your Eligibility for a VAWA Green Card
To apply for a VAWA-based green card, you’ll need to complete the following steps:
File Form I-360: Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant.
File supporting evidence for Form I-360. This will include credible evidence justifying your eligibility for VAWA status. More detailed information on how to best prove your VAWA case is available below.
File Form I-485: Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.
File required documents for Form I-485, including:
Two passport-style photographs.
A copy of your government ID with a photograph.
A copy of your birth certificate.
Submit Supporting Documentation To Prove Your VAWA Case
USCIS will consider the totality of the circumstances, so the more evidence you can provide to support your case, the better. To best prove your VAWA eligibility, you’ll need to provide the following:
Proof of your abuser’s U.S. citizenship or green card status. This may include their naturalization certificate, birth certificate, or green card.
Proof that you currently live in the United States, unless your abuser works for the U.S. government or armed services abroad.
Evidence of joint residence with your abuser at least once during your relationship. This may include shared leases, deeds, mortgages, rental agreements, utility bills, bank statements, address records, income tax filings, or other documents.
Evidence of the abuse. This may include police reports or court documents and affidavits from yourself, judges, court officials, medical workers, school officials, social workers, and clergy members.
You should include your account of the abuse during the relationship.
Expert witness testimony, such as an affidavit from a therapist, can be very helpful.
USCIS considers different types of abuse, including physical, emotional, and mental abuse, along with threats to withhold support or threats of deportation.
Evidence of your good moral character. This may include proof of charity or volunteer work. Affidavits from friends, family, or coworkers can also help show that you are a good person. You could also obtain local police reports from places you’ve lived for the last three years or a state-issued criminal background check.
If you are a battered spouse, you’ll need evidence that you entered your marriage in good faith. This may include shared insurance policies, credit cards, joint property leases, income tax forms, and bank statements. You may also provide evidence of a wedding ceremony, courtship, or other shared experiences.
If you struggle to gather all the necessary supporting documents or are unsure of whether you meet the eligibility guidelines, you may want to speak with an immigration lawyer. You may find low-cost or free legal assistance through USA.gov’s Legal Aid resources.
Common Challenges Faced by VAWA Applicants
Although VAWA allows applicants to apply for lawful permanent resident status secretly, you may still face several challenges while filing your green card application. Read on for a detailed discussion of the potential challenges you might face and how to address them.
You May Struggle To Access the Documents You Need
VAWA requires several personal documents about yourself and your abusive U.S. citizen or green card holder relative. Though you won’t need to disclose your VAWA petition attempt to your abuser, you may have difficulty gathering the necessary documents. Abusers often hide these documents or restrict access to them.
To stay safe while self-petitioning, you can request duplicate copies of documents like marriage licenses from your local government agencies. Previously filed immigration petitions may also include helpful information or documents about your abusive family member.
It May Be a Challenge To Prove Your Relationship Is Bona Fide
You may also find it difficult to prove that your relationship is bona fide or genuine. Even when sponsors and immigrants are amicably working together on an application, proving a bona fide relationship can be challenging. To do so, you’ll need to do your best to show USCIS that you did not enter your marriage simply to get a green card.
You can show that you and your partner had shared commitments, even if only at the beginning of your marriage. Shared financial commitments, evidenced by joint insurance policies, property leases, credit cards, tax returns, and bank accounts, can help establish this. Evidence that you held a wedding ceremony or other courtship-related expenses can also help. If you had kids together, their birth certificates can also act as evidence of a bona fide marriage.
It May Be Difficult To Prove the Abuse
You may have a hard time proving that you are a victim of abuse, especially if you did not face physical abuse. You may also have difficulty if there are no police reports documenting your abuse or if you did not have many trusted friends or relatives to confide in about your situation. In these cases, it may be especially helpful to present evidence from therapists detailing the emotional abuse you faced.
It May Be Challenging To Get Affidavits From Friends and Family
Abusers like to isolate the people they abuse from support networks. VAWA applicants may not have enough affidavits detailing the abuse to successfully petition. If this is the case, you can submit an affidavit explaining the isolation you faced.
You can’t always be sure whether a friend or family member may betray your trust and inform your abuser about your petition. If applicable, you can discuss how requesting additional affidavits may further endanger your safety.
If you find yourself in an emergency, you may contact 911 for assistance. In nonimmediate emergency situations, the National Domestic ViolenceHotline also maintains information about shelters, mental health care, legal advice, and other types of assistance, including information about self-petitioning for an immigration status. You may contact the hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
Successfully obtaining recognition under VAWA status will open up a legal permanent resident pathway for you. Once you are in control of your own immigration status, you may access immigration benefits and begin rebuilding your life and career in the United States.