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Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petition

What is VAWA?

Under the U.S. Violence Against Women Act, more commonly referred to as VAWA, a foreign national can self-petition for lawful permanent residence status if they are the victim of extreme cruelty or battery while in the U.S. at the hands of a relative. The purpose of VAWA is to protect victims of domestic violence who are foreign nationals already legally living in the U.S. It gives them the opportunity to escape their abuser by self-petitioning to continue to stay in the U.S. lawfully and obtain a green card.

There are two categories for those applying:
1) Immediate relative – the abuser is a qualifying relative of the self-petitioner and is a U.S. citizen.
2) Preference relative – the abuser is a qualifying relative of the self-petitioner and is a lawful permanent resident, usually a green card holder, but not a U.S. citizen.

Many family sponsored green card applications require a sponsor. That is not the case with VAWA self-petitions. Filing for protection under VAWA is a self-petition application process. It is confidential and the applicant does not need to tell anyone they are filing. They especially do not need to communicate this fact to their abuser. Furthermore, if the abuser is the sponsor for the self-petitioner’s current immigration status, the applicant does not need to seek the sponsor’s permission to file for the protections granted under VAWA.

Do I qualify for VAWA?

To qualify for VAWA protections, the self-petitioner must prove that they are the victims of extreme cruelty or battery while residing in the U.S. They must further prove that this abuse was committed by a U.S. citizen spouse, former spouse, parent, or child. The accused abuser could also be a lawful permanent resident spouse, former spouse, or parent.

The applicant must currently be residing in the U.S. when they file for protection. Other requirements include proof of the relationship with the abuser, residency with the abuser, and good moral character. If the abuse was from a spouse, the self-petitioner needs to show that they entered the marriage in good faith and intended to stay married to the person if not for the abuse.

As mentioned above, the self-petitioner must be either a spouse, parent or child of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. As a spouse or former spouse, the applicant may self-petition or they may petition on behalf their child who is under 21 and was abused by the spouse. As a parent, the applicant can self-petition if they were abused by their child. As a child, the applicant may self-petition if they were abused by a parent or they may be included in their parent’s spousal application until they are 21. From ages 21 to 25, a child can still self-petition.

What is the process to apply for VAWA?

The applicant will self-petition using form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant. Documented evidence of the abuse and proof of the relationship with the abuser must be submitted. To prove this, evidence in the form of pictures, hospital records, police records, birth certificates, marriage licenses, etc. should all be included in the petition. Once this form is approved the applicant can take the next step to apply for a green card with form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.

If the self-petitioner qualifies as an immediate relative, meaning the abuser is a U.S. citizen, they can file for a green card immediately. Often, both immigration forms are filed concurrently. If self-petitioner qualifies as a preference relative, meaning the abuser is a lawful permanent resident but not a U.S. citizen, they will need to wait a bit. The U.S. puts annual and per-country limits on the number of visas it will grant. Applicants are placed on a first-come first-serve list based on priority date. Because of this, the self-petitioner will be granted deferred action status and will need to wait until a visa becomes available. It is possible that this process could take several years. However, while waiting, the applicant can stay in the U.S. lawfully and can apply for authorization to work.

If the self-petitioner has previously filed the I-485 form to apply for a green card with a sponsor, they can file to have the form converted to be based on their VAWA self-petition rather than the abuser’s sponsorship. Once the 1-485 form is filed, the self-petitioner will be called for an interview with USCIS where their green card status will be determined.

VAWA self-petitions can also be filed if the applicant is already in removal proceedings. The applicant would need to show proof of abuse, a qualifying relationship with the abuser, presence in the U.S. for at least three years, proof that extreme hardship would be experienced if removed from the U.S., and good moral character.