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Violence Against Women Act

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

by: Jarbath Peña Law Group


TRIGGER WARNING: Images and Content involving domestic violence and abuse

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The American government first passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. This law instituted many protections for all victims (male or female) of crimes like domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. And one category of protection extends to non-citizen abuse victims.

Non-citizens who are relying on their abusers to get their green card are in a hazardous situation. Because there is a two-year waiting period from the time of filing for a marriage-based green card, if the non-citizen leaves the abuser, they would risk forfeiting their current or future immigration status. But if they stay, they remain in danger. Furthermore, if the batterer knows the non-citizen depends on them to get their green card, the abuser can hold this over the non-citizen’s head and use it to further manipulate and abuse their victim.

VAWA created a way for victims of domestic abuse to achieve their immigration goals without having to rely on or even notify their abusers. If you need help sidestepping your abuser while getting your green card, please call us. The Jarbath Peña Law Group can help.

How the Process Normally Works?

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Normally, in the absence of abuse, there is a process by which a close relative of a US citizen (USC) or lawful permanent resident (LPR) can obtain a green card. This process involves the USC or LPR filing a petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) on behalf of the close family member to get them legal immigration status. The close family member can be:

  • The spouse, child, or parent of a USC; or

  • The spouse or child of a LPR.

Under normal circumstances, the USC or LPR controls the process. So, if you are the spouse or relative trying to obtain your green card, you do not control the situation—your sponsor USC or LPR does. And if you seek a marriage-based green card, the USCIS makes you wait two years before getting a permanent green card. This is to avoid fraud, but the net effect in an abusive relationship can be traumatic. If that sponsor is abusive, having that much control over your immigration status is not ideal.

For these scenarios, VAWA allows abuse victims to get their legal status without the control or knowledge of the abuser. This is called a VAWA self-petition.

What Is a VAWA Self-Petition?

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A self-petition is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of the USC or LPR filing to get you a green card as a spouse or family member, the non-citizen can petition the USCIS to grant them legal status themselves. This sidesteps the need to inform or involve the abuser and removes this as a means of manipulation and control. If you have divorced your abuser, you can still file your petition, but the divorce must have occurred within two years of filing.

Spouses and children of a USC can immediately apply and obtain their green card. However, if you are a spouse or close relative of an LPR, you are subject to any backlogs that exist in the family preference system. So your LPR status may be somewhat delayed comparatively speaking, but you can still initiate and wait out the process without the assistance of your abuser.

Who Is Eligible?

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To self-petition, you must first prove that your relationship to the USC or LPR qualifies under VAWA. If you seek a marriage-based green card, you must first prove that you are the current spouse or former spouse of an abusive USC or LPR. If the USC or LPR you are basing your request on lost or renounced their citizenship status—either through domestic violence investigations or otherwise—be sure to file your petition within two years of their loss of status. If, for some reason, your marriage was illegitimate and you discover you were never legally married (as in the case of bigamy), you can still self-petition for your green card.

Other relationships that qualify are if you are the child or parent of the USC or LPR.

Other Eligibility Criteria for Self-Petitioners

Let’s look at some additional criteria that you must meet to qualify for a self-petition.

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  • You live or previously lived with your abuser;

  • You or your children were abused or suffered cruel treatment by the USC or LPR during the relationship;

  • A marriage-based petitioner must show that you entered into the marriage in good faith and not for the benefit of improved immigration status; and

  • You can be trusted to convey the truth because you possess good moral character.


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You may wonder what type of abuse qualifies. Here are some examples of abuse that qualifies:

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  • Violent acts;

  • Threats of violence;

  • Sexual abuse or exploitation;

  • Physical abuse;

  • Verbal abuse, as in when your abuser systematically or repeatedly verbally degrades or humiliates you;

  • Emotional abuse;

  • Isolating you from friends, family, and the outside world;

  • Intimidation and coercion;

  • Economic abuse, as in denying you access to money or basic needs;

  • Coercion or threats of taking your children away from you; and

  • Threats of having you deported.

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USCIS understands that many victims are afraid to call the police. So it is not necessary to have a police report or criminal charges filed against your abuser.

How to File Your Petition? We Can Help!

The attorneys of The Jarbath Peña Law Group are here to help in your time of need. If you have any questions about your eligibility, we have the answers. We can examine the facts of your case and help you determine if you have the right to self-petition the USCIS. And if you do qualify, let us do the hard work of getting your paperwork in order and making sure you meet all applicable deadlines. You don’t want to take a chance with something as critical as you and your children’s immigration status. So let us help you get it done properly and efficiently.

Family Law and Immigration Miami Attorneys.

Don’t let an abusive spouse or parent stop you from getting the immigration status you need to carry on with your life. Call today at 305-615-1005 or through our online contact form to set up your initial consultation.

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