As a noncitizen woman who's a victim of domestic violence, what help can I get?

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Question:

I overstayed my visa and have been living in the U.S. without authorization. My partner has recently been charged with domestic violence-related offenses against me. I recently heard that there might be a way for me to get my green card or a visa to stay in the U.S. legally. How do I go about applying for legal status?

Answer:

There are many great organizations out there that provide free or low-cost advice and services to victims of domestic violence. Generally, these organizations do NOT require proof of citizenship or legal immigration status and may be able to help you with a number of helpful resources. Check the Internet, Yellow Pages, reference librarians, or with local social services workers to find nonprofits or charities that serve women or immigrants.

In addition, you may be eligible to apply for a green card under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) or for a U visa as a victim of a serious crime in order to obtain legal status in the United States.

If you were legally married to your U.S. citizen or permanent resident partner and you were abused during the marriage, your best bet will be to apply for permanent residence (or a “green card”) under VAWA. VAWA will allow you to apply for permanent residence without the cooperation of your spouse. You do NOT have to be a woman to benefit from VAWA; men who were abused by their wives may also benefit from this law.

Unfortunately, if you were not married to your partner at some point (or if it is or was a same-sex marriage) or your partner is (or was) not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you are not eligible to apply for a green card under VAWA. You may be able to apply for a U visa, however, if you can show that you have suffered serious mental or physical injury and are helping law enforcement to prosecute the crimes against you. U visas are valid for up to four years and may be extended if circumstances warrant it.

For a more detailed discussion of whether it is best to apply for a green card under VAWA or a U visa, please read “Should You Apply for a U Visa or VAWA?

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