Shelter from the Storm: Immigration Relief for Abused Immigrants

By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Sarah Dooley

Despite law enforcement agencies and community organizations making advances in their response to domestic violence, the issue continues to plague the immigrant community.  Often times financial dependence, fear of deportation, limited English-language skills, cultural barriers, and lack of information prevent immigrant victims of domestic violence from coming forward or leaving their abusers.  Also, many who suffer verbal or mental abuse say nothing, thinking nothing can be done.

While abuse can come in the form of being hit, beaten, or sexually assaulted, mental and verbal abuse also qualifies as domestic violence.  Name calling, limiting access to friends and family, threats of violence, and controlling movement are only some examples of how a person can be mentally or verbally abused.  Fortunately, immigration law provides relief to many victims of all forms of domestic violence.

Many times the abusive spouse threatens their immigrant victim with arrest, detention, and deportation if they dare call the police or leave the home.  Many perpetrating spouses also use the withholding of immigration relief as a tool of control and further abuse.  However, what many do not know is that relief is available through an immigrant visa reserved specifically for the abused spouses of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.  

The Violence against Women Act (VAWA) allows physically and emotionally battered immigrants to petition for legal status in the United States without relying on abusive U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident spouses. Despite its name, VAWA is gender-blind, and both men and women can apply for this form of relief.

The purpose of the VAWA program is to provide victims the opportunity to “self-petition” or independently seek legal immigration status in the United States.  Victims of domestic violence, battery, and extreme cruelty whose self-petitions are approved may then apply for a green card directly. In order to qualify for a green card under VAWA, the immigrant need not have entered the United States lawfully, as the legal entry requirement is waived for approved self-petitions.  

When self-petitioning, the immigrant must demonstrate the validity of the marriage, the immigration status of the abuser (either a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident), and the presence of abuse.  Because emotional abuse is difficult to prove, and sexual abuse and battery can be hard to discuss, it is critical that victims find an attorney lawyer with whom they feel comfortable speaking, and who has experience in presenting these types of applications.  A lawyer with experience representing abuse victims will be aware of the relief and resources available and can guide the applicant through this difficult process. 

Competent legal representation can be the difference in receiving an approval or denial of a self-petition.When an immigrant is in an abusive situation, it is important to find safety, whether it be through calling the police, going to a shelter for abused women, or seeking escape through a friend or family member.  It is equally important to consult with competent, knowledgeable, and experienced legal counsel regarding immigration status.  Leaving the abuser does not render the victim unable to seek permanent residence.  In fact, it can be one of the first steps towards freedom from the abuse and hurt he or she has suffered.