There are two main steps to applying for U.S. lawful permanent residence (a "green card") on one's own, without having to rely on an abusive and possibly uncooperative U.S. citizen or resident spouse or parent. (These are made possible by the Violence Against Women Act, or "VAWA.) The steps are:
If you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen, you are an "immediate relative," and as such can combine these two steps into one and file the I-360 and the I-485 together, or "concurrently."
If your U.S. spouse is a lawful permanent resident (a green card holder), then you are not an immediate relative, and your only choice is to submit the Form I-360 to USCIS first, wait for USCIS approval, wait for your Priority Date to become current (which could take no time at all or months or years), and then file the I-485 application.
This article will guide you in further detail through the first step of the application process and direct you to resources for the next steps.
If you have any questions about your eligibility for VAWA, see Green Card Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA): Who Is Eligible.
NOTE: When looking for help as a victim of abuse, remember to consider how private your computer, Internet, and phone use are. Consider whether there's anything you can and should do to prevent someone else from learning that you're doing research or seeking help. Some victims, for instance, might use the same computer or device as the abuser, or might have a phone plan that allows the abuser to see the calls they make and receive. Other kinds of technology, like home security cameras and GPS in phones and cars, can also allow for monitoring by the abuser.
Let's start with the task of preparing USCIS Form I-360. The instructions below refer to the edition of the form published on 07/15/22, expiring 4/30/2024.
Form I-360 is used for several different types of applications, which means you will not need to fill out the entire form. Start by filling out the preliminary biographical and other information (Parts 1 through 5), which is fairly self-explanatory.
Then skip the portions that say: "Part 6. Complete Only If Filing for an Amerasian;" "Part 7. Complete Only If Filing as a Widow/Widower," "Part 8. Complete Only If Filing for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Court Dependent;" and "Part 9. Complete Only If Filing a Special Immigrant Religious Worker Petition."
Be sure to fill out Parts 10 and Part 11, however. Question 12 of Part 10 is particularly important if your spouse is a permanent resident and you're therefore not filing to adjust status concurrently. By choosing the "Yes" box here, USCIS will send you an employment authorization document (a work permit or EAD), and you won't even have to separately file a Form I-765 for it, nor pay a fee. (But if you have derivative children included in your application who need an EAD, or if and when you're still awaiting your green card when your EAD expires and you need to renew it, you will need to submit Form I-765 and pay the filing fee.)
You'll need to sign the application in Parts 11 and 12 (in the sections for "Petitioner" and "Authorized Signatory."
If someone helped you translate or fill out this form, they should fill out Part 13 or 14.
Use Part 15 to fill in anything that didn't fit in the earlier portions of the form.
Most of Form I-360 is pretty straightforward. However, there are a few things to consider. First, Form I-360 allows you to use another person's address in Part 1 instead of your own (Question 7, an "alternate and/or safe mailing address"), in case you are still living with an abusive person who might get angry and punish you for filing this form. This is the address to where all USCIS notices will be sent, so be sure that you can receive mail at this address in the future.
Self-petitioning spouses and children should check either box "I" or "J" in Part 2.
Part 3 asks for information about you. Enter only a valid Social Security number, if you have one. You might not have an "A number," either; it's only given to people who've filed previous immigration applications or been in deportation proceedings. If you entered the U.S. with a visa, your I-94 should be available on the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website.
Be sure to list all children in Part 5—yours, and if you are filing as the spouse of an abuser, the abuser's children also (whether they're also yours or not).
Part 4 asks you to state whether you'd like to have your interview held at a U.S. consulate outside the United States. This is appropriate if you yourself are living abroad. However, your first choice if you're in the U.S. now would be to adjust status, meaning to submit paperwork to, and attend your interview at a USCIS office. Although not everyone is normally eligible to adjust status, owing to various bars such as for illegal entry, these bars are lifted for VAWA self-petitioners. (See the USCIS Policy Manual at Chapter 8 - Inapplicability of Bars to Adjustment.)
Part 10 asks for information about the abuser and about your relationship with the abuser.
In addition to the form, you will need to include evidence that you meet all the requirements of VAWA. This evidence should include such items as:
For more information, see Proving Your VAWA Case: Evidence to Submit With I-360 Self-Petition.
It is also helpful to include a cover letter on top of the application describing how you meet each requirement and the evidence you have submitted to prove it.
No USCIS filing fee is required for self-petitioning abused spouses, parents, or children.
The I-360 page of the USCIS website contains complete submission instructions—but there's one important thing you need to figure out before you send it in. Are you the immediate relative of your abuser (the spouse, parent, or minor, unmarried child of a U.S. citizen), or do you have a current priority date (based on a previously filed I-130)?
If either of these are true, you can save a lot of time by submitting your I-360 to USCIS at the same time as your green card application (described below). That way, you don't have to wait for USCIS approval of the I-360 before moving forward with your green card application.
Otherwise—for example, if you're the spouse or child or a U.S. permanent resident who never submitted an I-130 petition on your behalf—you will need to submit your Form I-360 to USCIS, wait for its approval, and then file your green card (adjustment of status) application.
After USCIS receives your I-360 petition, it will send a receipt notice to the address you have provided on the form. USCIS may then review the self-petition to see whether it can be approved if everything you stated within is true. This is called a "prima facie determination."
If USCIS decides that your self-petition can be approved if it is true, it will send you a "Prima Facie Approval" letter. This does not mean you are granted anything yet. It does, however, mean that you can qualify for some types of public assistance. After sending you this Prima Facie Approval letter, USCIS will take more time to look carefully at your self-petition.
If USCIS needs more evidence to determine whether it should approve your I-360, it will send you a letter asking for it (a "Request for Evidence" or "RFE"). You will have a set period of time, usually 60 days, in which to give USCIS the new evidence or an explanation as to why you cannot do so.
If USCIS does not believe you qualify as an abused spouse, parent, or child, it might send you a "Notice of Intent to Deny." This will state the reasons why USCIS believes you do not qualify, and will give you additional time to send evidence that will change its mind. If you do not send convincing follow-up evidence, USCIS will deny the self-petition.
USCIS can also deny your I-360 without sending you a Notice of Intent to Deny.
If USCIS believes it has enough evidence showing that you are an abused spouse, parent, or child, it will send you an approval letter for your self-petition. This does not mean you are a lawful permanent resident yet, however. You have only completed the first step in the process.
After USCIS approves your I-360, you can begin to prepare your application to adjust your status (receive a green card). The main form for this is USCIS Form I-485, and more detailed instructions are found in How to File for Adjustment of Status (a Green Card) Based on VAWA.
If the abuser is a U.S. citizen, you are eligible to apply to adjust status as soon as your I-360 has been approved.
If the abuser is a permanent resident (green card holder), however, you will have to wait for a visa to become available in order to apply for your green card. That could take several months or even years. However, with an approved I-360, you can remain lawfully in the U.S. and can request work authorization (an EAD, as described above) while you wait.
Your place on the waiting list is based on your "priority date," which is the date that your I-360 was approved. If the abuser previously filed an I-130 petition for you, you can use that priority date instead.
See Adjustment of Status Procedures for more information on this final stage of the green card application process.
Because the process of applying for VAWA-based permanent residence is complex, consider getting a full analysis of your situation from an experienced immigration attorney. The attorney can also help you prepare the paperwork and monitor your application as it makes its way through the system.