U.S. immigration law provides three possible visas allowing victims of crimes to stay in or even come to the U.S. and testify or otherwise assist in law enforcement efforts:
If you are the victim of a violent or serious crime, determining which of these immigration categories is the best match for you given your circumstances can be difficult. This is especially true as you might qualify for more than one of these visas. For example, because human trafficking is a qualifying criminal activity for both the U and T visa categories, you might be eligible for either one.
Additionally, if you are the victim of domestic violence, you might be eligible for either a U visa or the VAWA self-petition. Both forms of relief provide a path to U.S. permanent residence (a green card). This article discusses when it is best to apply for a U visa and when you would be better served by filing the VAWA self-petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
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.
One drawback to the U visa is that the law limits the number given out to 10,000 per year. In the past, the cap has been reached before the end of the year. There is no similar restriction on VAWA self-petitions. This means that U visa applicants might have to wait until at least the next year for their applications to be processed, which could ultimately hurt their eligibility if their assistance with the criminal case is no longer needed.
The U visa cap has the added side effect of creating an enormous backlog for U visa petitions. In September 2020, for example, the Vermont Service Center was processing U visa applications it had received in November of 2015.
After your petition is approved, you might be placed on a waitlist known as “deferred action” for several years while waiting for a U visa to become available. After receiving a U visa, you will have to wait another three years before applying to adjust status and get a green card.
In total, you will likely wait for well over a decade between applying for a U visa and getting a green card. Filing your initial U visa petition will only be the first step; you will have to file for work authorization while in deferred action, and then a lengthy adjustment of status packet when you become eligible for a green card.
By contrast, in September 2020 the processing time for a VAWA self-petition was between three months and two years (depending on which service center was handling the case). In most situations, you can file to adjust status at the same time as you submit your petition. If your adjustment of status application is already pending, you can incorporate it into your VAWA self-petition. Unequivocally, VAWA is a much faster path to a green card than a U visa.
VAWA is a means for battered and abused spouses (and certain parents and children) to obtain a green card without the cooperation of the U.S. citizen or permanent resident relative who is abusing them. Despite being authorized by the Violence Against Women Act, men and women may both self-petition. You may qualify if:
However, if you are applying as a battered or abused spouse (or a spouse whose child was abused), you must:
This means that if you are not married to your partner (for example, you are just living together or are engaged), you will not be eligible for VAWA immigration relief. If the relative who is abusing you is not a permanent resident or U.S. citizen, VAWA relief is not available to you. Additionally, VAWA does not offer protection for people in civil unions or other such relationships.
Similarly, if you are battered or abused by your parents and you are over 21 (or your U.S. citizen child has abused you but is under 21) you cannot VAWA self-petition.
If you cannot prove that you entered into marriage with your abuser in good faith (in other words, that your intention was not to skirt U.S. immigration law), you will not receive a green card with a VAWA self-petition. You might, however, qualify for a U visa if you have suffered substantial injury and have helpful information to provide to authorities. You will not be asked questions about good faith marriage, but any sort of immigration fraud on your record will be considered when reviewing your U visa petition.
U visas were created for the immigrant victims of serious crimes who have suffered physical or mental injury due to this criminal activity, and can provide helpful assistance to law enforcement agencies. The public policy behind the U visa is that these immigrant victims could aid police officers and prosecutors by providing information that is helpful in investigating these crimes and bringing the criminals involved to justice. For more on the U visa, which crimes qualify, and who is eligible to apply, see U Visas for Crime Victims Assisting Law Enforcement: Who Is Eligible?
If you have been subjected to domestic violence, and are not able to VAWA self-petition, you may apply for a U visa. Like with VAWA, you will need to provide evidence of this battery or abuse and that it violated U.S. law. But you do not have to have a qualifying relative to apply, which makes the U visa more useful than VAWA in situations where, for example, your abuser is a not authorized to live in the U.S. or the two of you are not married.
In addition, for the U visa, you will need to have helpful information for a law enforcement official and he or she will need to “vouch” for your application by submitting a “Certification of Helpfulness.” You will need to show serious mental or physical injury and you will have to cooperate with authorities in providing information to help them investigate and prosecute your abuser.
You must also continue to be helpful to law enforcement all the way up until your adjustment of status. Under 2019 guidelines issued by the Trump administration, law enforcement can refuse to issue a certification of helpfulness, or even rescind the certification at any point up until you adjust status. To learn more about what will be required, see What’s Needed for a U Visa Certification of Helpfulness.
Approval of a VAWA self-petition requires that you show “good moral character.” A U visa requires only that you not be “inadmissible” to the U.S. (based on things like criminal convictions, medical grounds, and immigration violations) or eligible to receive a waiver of inadmissibility, where you will have to answer questions about your background. However, a U visa does not require an affirmative showing of good character like a VAWA self-petition.
Remember that, regardless of what type of visa you apply for, you will need to submit plenty of evidence to show that you are eligible. Also, if your application is denied, you risk being placed into removal proceedings and ultimately deported. So, it is advisable to seek the help of an experienced immigration attorney or domestic violence advocate before you apply.