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 mistreat 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. The U.S. is my home now, and I don't want to leave.
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?
Safety and Privacy Considerations for Victims
Be sure to consider the privacy of your computer, smartphone, or tablet when seeking help online or over the phone. Some victims might use the same device, network, or phone plan as the abuser, allowing the abuser to see the victim's search or call history or otherwise track their activity. Many smart devices contain cameras or GPS tracking that can be used to locate and monitor your whereabouts. An abuser can even slip a small tracking device in your car, bag, pocket, or other belongings without your knowledge. If you're concerned about your privacy or safety, several organizations provide assistance and resources, including National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN. You can also check out our Resources for Victims of Crime.
Technically speaking, hiring a lawyer to help with your VAWA application is not required. But, because of the pages of paperwork and evidentiary documents that are required for this (as well as for most other immigration applications), and because the government's interpretation of VAWA is constantly changing, the assistance of an attorney could dramatically improve your chances of a successful outcome.
Applying for VAWA relief isn't a situation where you can just fill out a few forms and expect an approval—you have to actually convince U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that you deserve this unusual remedy. 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.
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. (See 8 U.S. Code § 1154(a)(a)(A)(iii).)
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, see Application Process for a VAWA Green Card.
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:
It can be challenging for abused immigrants to obtain the official documents needed to prove each of the necessary elements. That's especially true when the abuser withholds the petitioner's documents or identification, as a control method. Or the immigrant might have already fled from the home and left important documents behind.
Fortunately, USCIS also recognizes the difficulty of gathering evidence. In areas where your evidence is lacking, you may present less formal evidence, such as signed declarations, time logs, and letters.
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, 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, and organizing it all.
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.
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 lack 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 (I-485), 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.
It's not uncommon for someone to come close to qualifying for a VAWA green card, only to find themselves barred from this relief. Perhaps, for example, they have a crime on record, or USCIS thinks they committed immigration fraud in the past (a bar to VAWA relief). The attorney might, for example, be able to find exceptions in the law that could preserve the case, or convince USCIS that its past findings were in error.
Keep in mind that if you do not qualify for VAWA, you might nevertheless qualify for another type of immigration relief for abused or battered immigrants. For example, a U visa might 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. Consulting with an experienced immigration attorney is a good way to help ensure that all of the legal avenues available to you are explored.
Hiring an immigration attorney can be a significant expense. Fortunately, legal aid organizations around the country might 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.