Last updated on May 13th, 2019
The Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) is a federal law which broadly protects survivors of domestic violence. One specific element of this law applies to immigrant victims of domestic violence, who may file for a green card through the VAWA program.
By working through the VAWA program, these immigrants can apply for a green card discreetly, without their spouse even knowing.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of how VAWA protects the interests of immigrants. We’ll also discuss the basics of the application process, as well as the differences between VAWA and other visa programs available to victims of crimes.
What are the Eligibility Criteria for VAWA?
VAWA is a law which allows certain survivors of abuse to petition for green cards. Despite the name of the law, both men and women may file for visas under VAWA.
The eligibility requirements for VAWA can vary based on the specifics of your case. However, all VAWA petitions require that you prove your relation to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. You will also have to provide evidence that the individual you’re related to (such as a spouse or parent) committed an act of abuse against you.
Specifically, only the following groups may file for a green card under VAWA:
- Spouses of U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
- Unmarried children of U.S. citizens or permanent residents (you must be under the age of 21 to qualify).
- Parents of U.S. citizens.
Each of these groups have specific eligibility requirements, which we’ll detail below.
Eligibility Requirements for Spouses
The spouse of a U.S. resident or citizen abuser may qualify for VAWA if any of the following statements are true:
- You are currently married to a U.S. resident or citizen who is abusing you.
- Your marriage was terminated within the last two years through divorce or the death of your spouse. If you terminated your marriage through divorce, the grounds for that divorce must be because of your spouse’s abuse.
- Your spouse lost their U.S. permanent residency due to an incidence of domestic violence. This must have occurred within two years of filing your petition.
- You believed that you were married to an abusive U.S. citizen or permanent resident, but the marriage was illegitimate due to bigamy.
In addition, you must not have entered into your marriage solely for immigration benefits, and must show that you’ve resided with the abusive spouse. Finally, as with all USCIS applications, you need to prove that you are of good moral character.
Note that as a parent, you may petition under VAWA even if your children were the only victims of abuse.
Eligibility Requirements for Unmarried Children
The children of abusive U.S. citizens or permanent residents may file their own VAWA petitions. The same is true of children whose parent or guardian lost their resident status as a result of abuse.
Additionally, you will have to prove that you resided with the parent in question. Children above the age of 14 will have to show that they are people of good moral character to be eligible.
Eligibility Requirements for Parents
The parents of an abusive U.S. citizen may file VAWA petitions. You may also do so if the abusive son or daughter lost their citizenship or died within the last two years.
Note that unlike the previous two categories, the parents of U.S. permanent residents can not file for a visa under VAWA. This right is reserved for the parents of U.S. citizens.
Otherwise, the eligibility requirements for parents are generally the same as the other two categories. You must prove your relationship to the abuser, and show that you possess good moral character.
What Is Good Moral Character?
As you can see in each of the categories above, another basic requirement for VAWA applicants is showing proof of good moral character. This is true for all VAWA applicants who are over the age of 14. If you’re familiar with U.S. citizenship requirements, this definition is identical to the good moral character requirement in the naturalization process.
Effectively, proving “good moral character” is a general way of proving that you possess the ability to be a good citizen. For example, this means proving that you haven’t willingly committed any “crimes of moral turpitude,” such as drug offenses or certain violent crimes.
However, defining good moral character is generally up to the judge or immigration officer who is handling your case. USCIS may even overlook minor crimes on the basis of community involvement and employment history.
Can My Family Remain in the U.S. with Me?
By itself, a valid VAWA petition only applies to you and any of your unmarried children under the age of 21. If you want your children to remain in the country with you, all you need to do is add them to your application. They don’t need to file their own additional VAWA petitions.
However, you cannot add any additional family members to your application. This means that your parents, siblings, cousins, and other relations cannot stay in the country under your VAWA petition. However, there is an alternate route towards giving them permanent residency.
Once you receive your green card through VAWA, you count as a lawful permanent resident. This means that other members of your immediate family can apply for their own residency through the family preference immigration program.
What is the Difference Between the VAWA, U Visa, and T Visa Programs?
Approved VAWA petitions, U visas, and T visas are all grant legal permanent residency status to victims of crimes. However, each program targets different groups, and has different eligibility requirements:
- VAWA is specifically for survivors of domestic violence.
- T visas specifically target victims of certain types of human trafficking. This includes victims of both labor and sex trafficking.
- U visas are broadly used to protect victims and witnesses of a wide range of violent crimes.
This means that survivors of domestic violence may apply under either VAWA or the U visa program.
Should I Apply Under VAWA, or the U Visa Program?
In general, it’s better to apply through VAWA than under the U visa program for several reasons. If you qualify for VAWA, you can apply for a green card immediately. In contrast, U visa applicants have to wait 4-5 years just for the visa, and can’t apply for a green card until 3 years after that.
This means that under VAWA, the entire green card process will generally take between 6 and 12 months. More importantly, unlike the U visa program there is no cap on applications for the VAWA program.
Another big benefit of the VAWA program is that it waives a lot of the common grounds of inadmissibility. Even if you entered the U.S. unlawfully, worked without authorization, or are in the country illegally, you can still apply for VAWA without an inadmissibility waiver.
Unlike other programs, you only really need a waiver in certain specific situations. As one common example, you need a waiver if you’ve already been deported and re-entered the country a second time. Similarly, certain crimes, such as violent offenses and visa fraud, also require an inadmissibility waiver under VAWA.
However, while there are many advantages to the VAWA program, it also has stricter eligibility requirements. These can include things like:
- Proving that you have a qualifying relationship with the abuser.
- Demonstrating that you possess good moral character.
In contrast, U visa applicants only need to assist law enforcement as witnesses or victims of violent crimes.
How Do I Petition Under VAWA?
Step 1: File Form I-360
The first step to the VAWA process is filing the I-360 form, Petition for Special Immigrant. Through this form, you will affirm that you’ve been abused by a family member, and that you wish to remain in the U.S.
There is no fee for filing form I-360 as a VAWA petitioner. However, you will need to submit the following along with your application:
- A declaration affirming your eligibility. This will mean describing your relationship as well as the abuse you suffered. You will also need to provide proof that your relation is a U.S. citizen or green card holder.
- Evidence of the abuse, such as photographs of your injuries or a police report. If you were hospitalized as a result of your abuse, you should also include hospital records.
- Your criminal record, or a document showing your lack of a criminal record. You may obtain this document from any law enforcement office in a district you have lived in for more than six months.
- Proof of where you currently live.
Note that you aren’t required to use your own personal address for form I-360. Especially if you’re still living with your abuser, finding another safe address is an important step.
If you use another address, keep in mind that USCIS will send all future communications to that address. For that reason, it’s important to choose a safe location that you will have access to for the foreseeable future. One common solution is to get a P.O. box.
Can I File Form I-360 If I Live Abroad?
In some circumstances, individuals living abroad can still file VAWA petitions. If your application is successful, USCIS will also send you a visa so you can enter the U.S.
If any of the following are true, you may submit a VAWA petition from outside the U.S.:
- The abuser was a member of the U.S. government.
- The abuser was a member of the U.S. uniformed services.
- Your relation subjected you to battery or extreme cruelty while you were living in the U.S.
Step 2: Submit Form I-485
As we stated previously, one of the biggest advantages of the VAWA program is that you can submit your green card application alongside your VAWA petition. To do this, you must submit Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.
There are a few additional forms and items you’ll need to submit alongside this form. This additional documentation can include:
- A copy of the Approval Notice for your I-360 form (if filing the two forms separately).
- A copy of your birth certificate, and a government-issued ID that includes a photograph. Do not use original documents for this step—always send a copy.
- Two passport-style photographs.
- A complete Form I-864W. This is a form which exempts you from requiring an Affidavit of Support.
- You will have to undergo a medical examination, and fill out an I-693 form detailing the results. There is no cost for doing so, although your physician will likely charge for the examination.
- If you have a criminal record, you will have to submit a copy of it.
- If you were previously deported or removed from the United States, you will need to submit an I-212 form. This form explains why you were deported, and that you are approved for readmission under VAWA.
If you decided to file the I-360 and I-485 together, then USCIS will decide on both at the same time. You’ll receive confirmation for both in the mail.
Step 3: Provide Additional Documentation
After you’ve submitted your I-360 and I-485, you should look out for further communications from USCIS. For example, you should receive a prima facie approval after USCIS has completed an initial review of your case.
Note that this is not the same thing as an approved VAWA petition. Instead, prima facie approval is a document confirming that USCIS has received, and will investigate, your application.
A prima facie approval does not give you authorization to work. However, it does entitle you to certain public benefits, such as food stamps.
During the investigation process, USCIS may send you communications requesting further information. Don’t hesitate to contact a lawyer if you feel you’re unable to comply with their request.
Once USCIS has enough evidence to prove that you have been a victim of abuse, you will receive an approval letter by mail. This process normally takes ten months or more.
Step 4 (Optional): Apply for Parole Documents
If you plan on temporarily traveling abroad while your I-485 is pending, you will need to seek parole. You can do so by filing an I-131, Application for a Travel Document. Unless you do so, USCIS will treat any attempt to leave the United States as abandonment of your petition.
Step 5: Receive and Confirm your VAWA and Adjustment of Status Approval
After you submit all of your documents to USCIS, the only thing left to do is wait for their approval. While they will process your VAWA application rather quickly, you’ll still have to wait several months for your green card application to go through.
You should periodically check the mailing address your put on your applications for updates on your case. Additionally, if you have any further questions about the status of your case at this point, you can contact USCIS either directly or through your immigration attorney.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, it is important to know that you have legal options available to you. In addition to contacting resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, don’t be afraid to get in touch with an immigration attorney.
An experienced immigration attorney can help you apply for a visa discreetly, and can help keep yourself and your family safe during the process. Additionally, an immigration lawyer can assist you with the difficult parts of the green card process, allowing you to focus on taking care of yourself and your family.