The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a federal law that allows victims of domestic violence to obtain lawful permanent residence (a green card) without the help of their abusers. Normally, a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR) must “petition” for his/her spouse or child. However, under VAWA, an abused spouse or child can “self-petition” to become eligible to apply for LPR status without the help or involvement of the abuser. This option is important because many abusers may try to control the immigration process and the victim’s immigration status as part of the ongoing abuse. There is no filing fee for the VAWA self-petition application.
Many of the issues that arise in VAWA self-petitions are complicated. You should always consult with an experienced immigration attorney before filing an application. This article provides general information regarding VAWA self-petitions, but the information is not a substitute for legal advice:
Eligibility: To apply for a VAWA self-petition, you must be legally married to (or be the child of) a U.S. citizen or LPR. If you have a child under 21 years old and unmarried, you can include them on your VAWA self-petition even if they were not abused. If you divorce your abuser because of the abuse, you must apply for the VAWA self-petition within two years of your divorce. If your abuser dies, you must similarly file the self-petition within two years of the death. You must have married in good faith, meaning that you married your spouse intending to establish a life together, not just to gain legal immigration status. You must have lived with your spouse in the United States. You must also be a victim of physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse by your spouse. You must be a person of “good moral character,” which generally means that you have not committed certain types of crimes.
- Proving that you meet these requirements: To prove eligibility, you can submit different types of evidence, like copies of marriage and birth certificates; proof of abuser’s immigration status; your personal statement describing your relationship and the abuse; photos; police report(s); and more, depending on your situation.
Unfortunately, if your abuser does not have immigration status, you are likely not eligible to apply for the VAWA self-petition. However, you may be eligible for another immigration benefit called “U nonimmigrant status” (U visa) which may eventually lead to LPR status. You should consult with an immigration attorney if you are a victim of domestic violence and have reported or are willing to report the crime to a law enforcement agency.
Maintaining your safety during the application process: Do not collect any documents or gather any evidence if doing so may compromise your safety. There are usually alternative ways of showing that you satisfy a particular requirement under VAWA. Once you file the self-petition, immigration authorities are not allowed to tell your abuser that you have done so or give out any information about your application.
Applying for LPR status and work permits: After your self-petition is approved, you can apply for an Employment Authorization Document (work permit), which allows you to work legally in the United States. Depending on where you live, you may also be eligible for certain types of government benefits.
You may also qualify to apply for LPR status. If your abuser is a U.S. citizen, you are considered an “immediate relative” under immigration law and can apply for LPR status as soon as your VAWA self-petition is approved. If your abuser is an LPR, then you will be given a priority date as if your abuser had petitioned for you, and you must wait until your priority date becomes “current” (when immigration authorities announce that they are processing applications with that date) to apply. The LPR application process has requirements and fees separate from the VAWA self-petition application and should be completed by or in consultation with an immigration attorney.