In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In doing so, Congress’ purpose was to provide sufficient and effective response to the increased rates of certain crimes associated with domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Congress later expanded and improved the VAWA protections and benefits in 2000, 2005, and 2013 respectively despite certain oppositions.
VAWA is a unique piece of federal legislation because it specifically addresses domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes and allows the use of federal funding to improve state response to violence against women, including training and resources for law enforcement and judges.
Today, VAWA provides immigration relief to victims of domestic violence. Congress extended VAWA protections to non-citizens because it simply recognized that immigrant victims of domestic violence usually have no alternative avenues and are required to stay with their abuser due to the lack of lawful status. Qualifying victims for VAWA petitions are the abused spouses, children, or parents of a United States citizen or Legal Permanent Resident.
Despite Congress’ efforts to assist the victims of domestic violence, many immigrants are hesitant to file such petitions due to many concerns fed by fear of being subjected to further abuse. Therefore, it is necessary to address some of the major concerns and mistaken assumptions regarding VAWA petitions.
First, many immigrants are under the impression that if they file a VAWA case with the USCIS, their abuser will find out about the case and subject them to further abuse. However, the reality is the opposite because USCIS’ main priority concerning VAWA petitions is the safety of the petitioner. In that regard, it is important to note that VAWA is a “self-petitioning” relief that removes control from the abuser and allows the victim to file his/her petition without the abuser’s knowledge or consent. VAWA petitions receive the highest level of confidentiality. USCIS does not share any information about the self-petitioner’s case with anyone except the self-petitioner and his/her attorney to ensure the safety of the self-petitioner. Further, VAWA petitioners are given the option to choose a safe mailing address for their case so that no mail is ever sent to their home address, shared with the abuser.
Second, many immigrants believe that VAWA protection encompasses only women and is offered to a certain class of individuals. Again, the reality is the opposite because VAWA petitions provide immigration relief equally to women and men. One has to recognize that men can be as vulnerable as women in the face of extreme cruelty and abuse. USCIS does not set such prejudicial boundaries in evaluating VAWA petitions. Therefore, immigrants should know that in passing the VAWA legislation, Congress intended to assist a variety of victims, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. Male victims should not hesitate to seek protection under the VAWA and obtain legal immigration status based on the abuse that they have suffered.
Third, many immigrants believe that if they are not “physically abused,” they cannot seek protection under VAWA. However, the reality is nowhere close to this mistaken assumption. The standard for VAWA petitioners is that the victim must have been battered or subject to extreme cruelty. Therefore, even if a self-petitioner is not physically abused, he/she can qualify if he/she has been subject to sexual abuse, economic abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, and/or verbal abuse to prove extremely cruel behavior. One should note that the definition of domestic violence can never be limited to physical violence, and such violence can include many forms of abuse committed against the victim.
Forth, many immigrants believe that if they do not have physical evidence of the abuse, they cannot successfully file a VAWA self-petition. However, this is not the case at all. Of course, it would be nice to have a police report, medical records, or order of protection providing further details of the abuse, but such physical evidence is not a requirement. USCIS is aware that many qualified applicants are too afraid to seek protection from the Family Court, go to a hospital, or contact the police since the abusers often require them to stay at home under a threat of deportation and bar them from seeking assistance. When there is no physical evidence of the abuse, immigration attorneys usually work with VAWA self-petitioners to set out alternative forms of evidence to present a strong case before USCIS. One should note that USCIS officers are trained to fully understand the dynamics of domestic violence and recognize the common barriers immigrant victims face in their abusive relationship.
Applying for VAWA is a difficult process. As an abused spouse, child, or parent, it is extremely difficult to share the most private details of your life with others. At the UBA, our dedicated staff recognizes the challenge that the victims face. We have dealt with countless victims of domestic violence, and ensured that they are treated with respect, care, and dignity as they reveal such brutal truth of their lives to us and go through an often-difficult legal process. If you or your loved one is in need of legal guidance, please feel free to contact our office.