The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a U.S. immigration law that protects noncitizen abuse victims in the United States. This article explains what it means to self-petition under VAWA, including the eligibility requirements and the application process. The article also answers frequently asked questions about the VAWA self-petition, including whether your abusive relative will know about your petition.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Updated August 15, 2022
What Does Self-Petition Mean?
A self-petitioner is someone who files an immigration petition for themselves. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and VAWA, the U.S. government seeks to protect immigrant victims of abuse. If you are the victim of an abusive U.S. citizen spouse, child, or parent, you may be eligible to self-petition for a green card under VAWA. Victims abused by their U.S. green card holder spouse or parents may also be eligible to self-petition.
Most other green card applicants require sponsorship from a family member or employer. This means that a U.S.-based immediate relative or employer typically sponsors, or supports, an immigrant’s application. As a form of relief from potential danger, the U.S. government allows victims of domestic violence to self-petition for an immigration status without their abuser’s knowledge.
With permanent resident status, you’ll be able to reside in the United States without fearing deportation. You may apply for a work permit, also known as work authorization or an employment authorization document (EAD), to begin your career here. You may also obtain derivative legal permanent resident (LPR) status for certain dependent family members. Derivative status grants your dependent family members permission to remain with you in the United States.
Eventually, you may also become eligible for naturalization. If successful, you can become a U.S. citizen and gain access to even more benefits. You’ll be able to vote in U.S. elections, travel freely, and petition for your siblings to receive green cards.
Will My Abusive Partner Know I Applied for VAWA?
Your abusive partner will not need to know that you are self-petitioning for VAWA status. The U.S. government understands that domestic abuse and extreme cruelty victims may fear for their safety when applying for immigration benefits. The U.S. government also wants to make sure that victims can securely access their rights under VAWA. When you self-petition for VAWA status, they will never notify your abuser about your decision to apply.
Throughout your application process, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may send you several notices. You should use accounts, email addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses that are only accessible to you and/or someone you trust. If you are living with your abuser, you can ask a close friend or relative to help keep your information safe. You have the option of directing any mail to your close contact’s mailing address. If you fear your abuser might find out about your application through mailings, take this precaution.
Be careful when discussing your decision to apply with others. You should only speak with trusted friends and family members who would never expose this information to your abuser.
If at any point during the application process, you feel very unsafe, you should seek assistance. If you are in immediate danger, you should call the police at 911. If you would like anonymous, confidential help, you may reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline any time at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
How To Self-Petition for VAWA
To self-petition under VAWA, you must meet certain eligibility requirements. To check whether you’re eligible, you can review our in-depth informational guide on VAWA status. Generally, battered victims of abuse by a U.S. citizen spouse, parent, or child are eligible for VAWA status. Victims of U.S. lawful permanent resident abusive spouses or parents are also eligible. You may also petition for VAWA on behalf of your abused child.
You’ll need to meet additional requirements, including proving that:
You entered into any abusive marriages in good faith.
You have good moral character. This means that you do not have any criminal or immigration violation records that would preclude you from later applying for a green card. Depending on the nature of your record, USCIS may be willing to waive consideration of certain crimes for you. If the U.S. government has ever deported or removed you from the country, you may also file Form I-212 to gain permission to return.
If you’d like to proceed with the self-petition process, refer to our detailed guide linked above on obtaining VAWA status. Generally, you’ll need to complete Form I-360, the Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant. If applying from within the United States under the adjustment of status process, you’ll need to submit Form I-485, the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.
From outside the United States, the overall process requires filing Form I-360 and working with your local U.S. embassy or consulate. This system is known as consular processing. If you apply while outside the United States, USCIS will forward your Form I-360 VAWA self-petition to the National Visa Center (NVC). The NVC is an agency of the U.S. Department of State. The NVC will forward your petition to your local U.S. consulate or embassy. NVC will also notify you about next steps to apply for your green card from abroad.
You’ll need to submit some supporting documents with your applications, including:
A copy of your Form I-797 Approval Notice or receipt of your Form I-360 from USCIS. Note that you won’t need to provide this copy if filing both I-360 and I-485 together.
A copy of a government-issued identity document with a photo
A copy of your birth certificate
Two passport-style photographs
Form I-693, the Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record. You can either submit this together with Form I-485 or later by mail when USCIS requests it.
A copy of your passport page with any nonimmigrant visas or admission or parole stamps, if applicable
A copy of your Form I-94, the Arrival/Departure Record
Perhaps you have a history of criminal activity, interactions with law enforcement, or meet one of the grounds of inadmissibility. If you have unusual circumstances, you’ll want to review USCIS guidance on waivers to determine whether you might qualify for one.
What Happens After Filing a VAWA Self-Petition?
As of July 2022, the current estimated processing time for applicants is 26 months. You can look online to see USCIS’s latest updates on processing times. Select Form I-360.
Once you submit your self-petition, USCIS will send you a notice of receipt to the address on your application. The notice lists the date on which USCIS got your petition. Be cautious when completing the mailing address section of Form I-360. If you are worried about your abuser finding out about your decision to apply, take certain precautions. Limit their access to your personal accounts and ask a trusted friend to receive any USCIS notices on your behalf.
Once USCIS reviews your application, they will decide whether to issue you an “establishment of prima facie case” notification. Receiving this status means that USCIS thinks you would be eligible for VAWA-based protections. However, this status is conditional on the validity of your application. You are not officially approved for VAWA status, but you may be soon. At this time, however, you may actually be eligible for certain public benefits depending on your state’s laws.
USCIS will notify you once they officially approve your self-petition. Note that an approved self-petition does not automatically grant you a green card. An approved self-petition simply allows you to seek a green card through Form I-485. Processing times for Form I-485 will vary depending on your USCIS field office, abuser’s U.S. status, and current immigrant visa availability. To see the State Department’s estimates for visa availability and priority dates, check out the Visa Bulletin.
Frequently Asked Questions About the VAWA Self-Petitioning Process
Many VAWA self-petitioners face complex concerns in the application process. Read on if you’d like additional clarification on some of the most frequently asked questions on the VAWA self-petition process.
If I Divorced My Abusive Partner Before Removing Conditions on My Marriage Green Card, Can VAWA Help Me?
When Congress passed the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments (IMFA) in 1986, the U.S. Code (U.S.C.) created a new requirement for immigrant spouses. Before an immigrant spouse can receive permanent resident status, they must first spend time as a conditional resident. The U.S. government wished to prevent immigrants from entering fraudulent marriages solely to obtain green card benefits. Now, if you are an immigrant who married a U.S. citizen or green card holder within less than two years of applying for a green card, you will receive a conditional green card instead. You can later convert from conditional to permanent resident status.
Typically, immigrant spouses seeking lawful permanent resident status must first apply for removal of their conditional residence. To do so, most couples will file joint petitions to prove that their marriage is bona fide, or genuine and ongoing. However, as a divorced victim of abuse, you won’t need to work with your former spouse to remove these conditions.
VAWA self-petitioners can apply for the I-751 waiver. If USCIS approves your waiver application, you won’t need to worry about removing your conditional restrictions. To apply for the waiver, you’ll need to prove that you are the battered spouse (or parent of a battered child) at the hands of your U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse. Once approved, USCIS will allow you to proceed with your application for permanent resident status.
Will I Have To Testify About My Abuse?
USCIS will not force you to speak with them about your abuse. You aren’t required to interview about your self-petition or to appear in court. USCIS uses the written evidence you submit to make a decision on your petition. All that USCIS needs to approve your VAWA petition is substantial evidence submitted with your petition to prove why you qualify. To learn more about what evidence you'll need, read our article How To Prove Your VAWA Case to USCIS.
Will VAWA Protect Me From Deportation?
Even if you are granted protection through VAWA, you will not automatically receive protection from deportation. VAWA self-petition applicants do not yet have lawful permanent resident status in the United States.
If you find yourself being arrested by immigration authorities, you should speak with an immigration attorney about your options. Your immigration lawyer may be able to ask the U.S. government not to deport you while your self-petition is pending.