VAWA and the 'Domestic Violence Green Card'
If you are a victim of domestic violence and you are not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident (LPR), you may be eligible to file for what's known as a "domestic violence green card."
The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) and U.S. immigration courts govern the issuance of green cards and immigrant visas. A green card is a U.S. legal permanent resident card. It permits a non-citizen to live in the U.S. legally for an indefinite period of time. A visa allows a non-citizen to enter, leave, or remain in the U.S. for a definite period of time.
A domestic violence green card and certain visas can be granted to non-citizens, including undocumented persons, depending on the circumstances. Oftentimes, the non-citizen must cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute their abusers.
Surviving an abusive relationship is always difficult. If you are a non-citizen or do not legally reside in the U.S., you may be unaware of the law. You may not know where to go for help. You may face language barriers. You may be afraid that making a police report or seeking a protection order for domestic abuse may lead to deportation.
Immigration status need not be a barrier to getting the help you need. Federal and state laws may be available to help you regardless of legal status. The domestic violence green card and visa protections are designed to assist battered spouses, partners of abusive U.S. citizens, and other survivors of domestic violence.
The following is an overview of domestic violence green card and visa protections for victims of domestic violence.
The Domestic Violence VAWA Green Card
Green cards (permanent resident status documents) are often obtained when a family member or an employer sponsors an immigrant's application to reside in the United States on a permanent or long-term basis. In the past, an immigrant spouse could only seek a green card through the cooperation of their U.S. citizen spouse. But the U.S. citizen spouse rarely cooperated after physical abuse allegations.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provided a route for legal immigration for non-citizen victims of domestic violence. Under VAWA, immigrant women who claim domestic abuse may self-petition for a green card. They can petition independently of their spouse. This is called a VAWA self-petition.
If a victim's VAWA self-petition is approved, she can file for a green card. She does not need to be a lawful permanent resident to apply. This is often referred to as a VAWA green card. She can also apply for a work authorization permit. This is also known as an employment authorization document (EAD). If the VAWA self-petitioner is outside the U.S., she can apply through the consulate process.
The VAWA self-petition and other forms of relief discussed here are open to both women and men.
Benefits of a Domestic Violence VAWA Green Card
When you independently apply for a VAWA green card without an American citizen filing on your behalf, you will be identified as a VAWA self-petitioner. VAWA self-petitioners who obtain permanent residency status are also entitled to the following:
- Permanent residency in the U.S., provided you don't commit an offense that makes you removable under U.S. immigration law
- An opportunity to work in any occupation of your choosing, including the option to start your own business or corporation
- Protection by U.S., state, and local laws
- Ability to leave and re-enter the U.S. at will while carrying your green card
- Right to apply for government-sponsored financial aid for higher education and receive "in-state" or "resident" tuition rates
- Right to appropriate Social Security benefits
- Ability to sponsor your spouse or unmarried minor children under 21 for permanent residency status (green card)
- Eligibility for Naturalization and U.S. Citizenship
However, you should keep in mind that a green card does not provide the right to vote in federal, state, or local elections.
Eligibility Requirements for a Domestic Violence VAWA Green Card
Your relationship with the abuser determines eligibility. You're eligible to file a VAWA petition for a green card if you're one of the following:
If you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, you may be eligible to file for a domestic green card in two situations: (1) you are a spouse of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who has abused you or (2) you are a spouse and a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident has abused your child.
If you are the parent of an abusive child who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you are eligible to file for lawful permanent resident status documents.
If you are an unmarried child under 21 years of age and one of your parents who is a U.S. citizen has abused you, you are eligible to file a petition. If you have children, you can also include their names on your petition. If you're over age 21 but not yet 25, you can still file as a child if you can show that the abuse was the primary reason you were not able to file before age 21.
In addition to the relationship criteria, there are additional requirements you must meet.
For Abused Spouses
Besides the requirement that your spousal relationship satisfies the criteria above, there are a number of other factors you must meet as an abused spouse. To be eligible for permanent residency due to domestic violence, you must:
- Have suffered battery or extreme cruelty by your U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse (or your child has suffered this at the hands of your spouse),
- Have entered the marriage in good faith and not solely for immigration benefits,
- Have resided with your spouse, and
- Be a person of good moral character
You should also consult the USCIS website, which provides a more detailed description of criteria.
For Abused Children
Abused children must meet certain additional criteria as well. If you are filing for a domestic violence green card because you are an abused child of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you must:
- Have suffered battery or extreme cruelty by your U.S. citizen or permanent resident parent,
- Have resided with your abusive parent, and
- Be a person of good moral character (a child under 14 years of age is presumed to be a person of good moral character)
For Abused Parents
Besides the requirement that your relationship with your abusive son or daughter satisfies the listed criteria, abused parents must also meet the following to be eligible for permanent residency due to domestic violence:
- Have suffered battery or extreme cruelty by their child who is a U.S. citizen,
- Have resided with that abusive child, and
- Be a person of good moral character
Filing for the Domestic Abuse VAWA Green Card
To file, you must complete Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant. You and your immigration attorney should submit the completed form with the necessary supporting documentation to the Nebraska Service Center. The fee is waived for qualifying victims of domestic violence. Once your I-360 is approved, you're eligible to file for a green card.
You may not currently reside in the United States though your abuser is an employee of the U.S. government or a member of the uniformed services. You can still file for your own green card if you were abused by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident while present in the United States.
What Options Are There for Immigrants that are Not Related to a U.S. Citizen or LPR?
Undocumented immigrants who do not have a relationship to a U.S. Citizen or LPR may qualify for a U-Nonimmigrant Status (U-Visa) or a T-Nonimmigrant Status (T-Visa) under certain circumstances.
The U-visa process provides a path to citizenship for immigrants who are victims of certain crimes. These crimes include domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. An immigrant victim of domestic violence must show the following:
- They are a victim of a qualifying crime (e.g., domestic violence) that took place in the U.S., a U.S. territory or military base
- They possess credible information about that crime
- They are likely to help law enforcement prosecute that crime
- They suffered substantial physical or mental harm
- They will not be excluded under other grounds for inadmissibility (or you qualify for a waiver of this provision)
If a victim qualifies for a U-visa, they must obtain law enforcement certification. They may seek to add close family members such as children to their request. It may take a substantial period of time before work authorization will be granted. Eventually, a U-visa applicant may obtain LPR status and apply for full citizenship.
The U-visa doesn't grant you automatic access to government benefits, but you will become eligible for consideration for public benefits by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Department (USCIS).
The T-visa process provides a path to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status for immigrants who are victims of human trafficking. To be eligible, an applicant must demonstrate they were the victim of severe human trafficking. Severe human trafficking includes sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The applicant must show they are cooperating with law enforcement. They can do this by having a law enforcement agency complete an endorsement form. They must show that they are in the U.S. or a U.S. territory for the purpose of trafficking. There must be evidence that removal or deportation would cause extreme hardship and involve unusual and severe harm.
Circumstances for obtaining a T-visa can be complicated and take longer in the courts. Victims are wise to seek legal advice before filing for this status.
Get Legal Help To Better Understand Your Options
Living in fear of your domestic partner but not having the freedom to make a fresh start on your own can be a tragic situation. Thankfully, federal law gives immigrants who are victims of domestic violence a way to adjust their legal status and seek a green card.
With an adjustment of status, a VAWA green card holder may more easily access local resources to help get life back on track. Undocumented immigrants without direct connection to a U.S. citizen or LPR may want to explore the U-visa and T-visa eligibility requirements.
To learn more about the domestic violence green card and other possible relief for immigrant victims, you should contact an immigration lawyer. Discuss your specific situation and see what options may be available to you. You may also consider contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline for additional resources.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.