I am originally from a small town in Eastern Europe. Last year, I came to the United States to meet a man I had been corresponding with for months. We married, but soon after our wedding, he began to physically abuse me. He took my visa and told me that if I leave him, I’ll never get my green card and he will have me deported. In the past year, he has thrown me down a flight of stairs and broken my arm. I am very afraid of him and I don’t know what to do. I heard about VAWA through a friend, but it seems like a complicated process and I only have a small amount of money saved that my husband does not know about. Should I hire an immigration lawyer?
Technically speaking, hiring a lawyer to help with your VAWA application is not required. But, because of the pages of paperwork and evidentiary documentation that are required for this (as well as for most other immigration applications), the assistance of an attorney could drastically improve your chances of a successful outcome for your case.
Applying for VAWA relief isn’t a situation where you can just fill out a few forms and expect an approval—you have to convince U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that you deserve this unusual remedy. And the application process can take several months, during which time it’s helpful to have an attorney keeping your paperwork safe and handling tasks that would be hard for you to do without attracting your abuser’s attention.
The good news is that a number of immigration attorney who specialize in VAWA cases offer their services for reduced fees, or sometimes for free.
How VAWA Helps Abused Immigrants
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a federal law that helps victim advocates, community organizations, and government agencies better respond to domestic violence and sexual assault. The VAWA immigration application is a way to help battered immigrant spouses (both men and women) and children of United States citizens and green card holders obtain a green card (lawful permanent residence) independently from, and without notifying, their abuser.
Abused immigrants can apply for a green card via VAWA in two steps). First, you file a self-petition (USCIS Form I-360) along with the requisite supporting documentation. If you meet the criteria for VAWA and USCIS approves your self petition, you may then apply to adjust your status, using USCIS Form I-485. If this application is approved, you will receive a green card.
For more information about how to file a VAWA petition, see Application Process for a VAWA Green Card.
VAWA Petitions Usually Require a Lot of Supporting Evidence
The process of petitioning for a green card through VAWA requires only two steps—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To get your case approved, you will need to submit a lot of evidence about both you and your abuser. You are required to prove:
Oftentimes, it is challenging for abused immigrants to obtain the official documents needed to prove each of the necessary elements. Sometimes, the abuser withholds the petitioner’s documents or identification, or the immigrant may have fled from the home and left documentation with the abuser.
Fortunately, USCIS also recognizes the difficulty of gathering evidence. In areas where your evidence may be lacking, you may present less formal evidence, such as signed declarations, time logs, and letters.
How an Attorney Can Help Gather and Organize This Supporting Evidence
Although less formal evidence is acceptable, and at times can be helpful to your case, it is important that the various documents—especially declarations—be written persuasively and clearly.
This is where an attorney can be incredibly helpful, thinking up creative ways to obtain evidence or documents, and helping to interview and draft persuasive declarations on behalf of witnesses to the abuse or people who know other relevant facts about you and your abusive spouse.
Moreover, a knowledgeable immigration attorney can help figure out when you’ve gathered enough evidence to prove each of the above elements, making the application process smoother and allowing you to present a more complete application to USCIS. Because of the amount of paperwork involved in VAWA applications, an attorney can also be particularly helpful in presenting your information to USCIS in an organized and complete fashion.
You will also want to make sure that you have a copy of your application and that your official documents are secure. Sometimes this is difficult for abused immigrants, who may not have a stable place to stay (having fled the home), or whose abuser confiscated the needed documents. An immigration attorney can help you keep your documents secure.
Additionally, if you are filing a VAWA application without your abuser’s knowledge, an attorney can help shield you from your abuser by requesting information and documents on your behalf. Any notices you receive from USCIS can be sent to your attorney’s office rather than to your home or that of a friend, or a P.O. box.
After your initial VAWA self petition is approved, your attorney can further guide you in filing the adjustment of status application. This is a lengthy form, and not all sections apply to VAWA, so a skilled immigration attorney will be able to help you complete the parts that apply to you, assist you in presenting the supporting documents required to get a green card, and also accompany you to your green card interview.
Also keep in mind that if you do not qualify for VAWA, you still may qualify for another type of immigration relief specifically for abused or battered immigrants. For example, a U visa may be available if you are a victim of a serious crimes, have suffered mental or physical abuse, and are helpful to law enforcement in the prosecution of the criminal activity. For more on this option, see U Visas for Crime Victims Assisting Law Enforcement. Consulting with an experienced immigration attorney is a good way to help ensure that all of the legal avenues available to you are explored.
Cost of an Attorney and Related Concerns
Hiring an immigration attorney can be a significant expense, which presents a challenge for abused immigrant spouses and children. Fortunately, legal aid organizations around the country may be able to assist you with your VAWA application, either for free (“pro bono”) or for a reduced fee.
Many attorneys who regularly practice “humanitarian” immigration law also offer lower rates than family-based and employment immigration attorneys, because they recognize that their clients are often vulnerable.
Moreover, some legal aid organizations that specialize in VAWA applications offer checklists and self-help packets at their offices and online, so that you can do some of the legwork yourself, which may help to reduce costs.
To find a pro bono or reduced-fee attorney who can help with your VAWA application, start by calling the “legal services” or “pro bono” division of the bar association in your state. You can also search for “legal aid resources by state” online to get a list of organizations in your state that may be able to help you.
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.