Legal Information: Federal

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Immigration

Immigration rules can be complicated, but these sections will help give you an idea of your options and your rights. However, we strongly suggest that before taking any action, you consult with (and retain) a lawyer who specializes in the type of immigration remedy you are seeking. For lawyer referrals, please see our National Organizations - Immigration page.

VAWA for Abuse Victims

Immigration laws are extremely complicated. Here we provide some basic information about immigration options for victims of domestic violence. WomensLaw.org strongly recommends that you consult with an immigration lawyer with experience in VAWA before applying for any type of immigration status to see if you qualify for these or other kinds of immigration status. For national organizations with experience in general immigration law, please see our Immigration page. You can also find legal referrals on our Finding a Lawyer page.

VAWA Self-petitions

Basic info about VAWA self-petitions

What is VAWA? What is a VAWA self-petition?

VAWA stands for the Violence Against Women Act, which was passed by Congress in 1994. One thing VAWA did was create a special route to lawful immigration status for victims of domestic abuse who normally must rely on their abusers to file for status for them. VAWA self-petitioning allows victims of abuse who are close relatives of US citizens and lawful permanent residents to file for status on their own.

The way regular immigration law works is that if you are the spouse, child, or parent of a US citizen (USC) or the spouse or child of a lawful permanent resident (LPR), the USC or LPR relative must file a petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) on your behalf for you to get legal status. That relative controls the process until you get your own lawful permanent residence (“green card”). VAWA changed that by allowing victims of abuse in this situation to get legal status without the participation or control of the abuser through a VAWA self-petition.

What do I have to prove to be able to file for a VAWA self-petition?

VAWA self-petitioning is similar to filing a regular family immigration application but with some additional requirements.1 Just like the regular family immigration system, VAWA self-petitioning is for close family members of US citizens or lawful permanent residents, so you must prove your relationship to the abuser. You also must show you have “good moral character” and that you have suffered “battery or extreme cruelty,” which is how Congress described domestic abuse in the immigration law. For details on how to show these requirements, go to our Eligibility for VAWA self-petitions section.

Because immigration law is so complicated, and VAWA self-petitioning is a special area of immigration law, we strongly encourage you and your domestic violence advocate to work with an immigration lawyer with experience in VAWA. Our National Organizations - Immigration page lists national organizations working in the area of immigration law and our Finding a Lawyer page includes the contact information of legal organizations and lawyer referral services by state.

1 INA § 204(a)(1)(A) & (B)

Can I get lawful permanent residence through VAWA self-petitioning?

Can I work legally if I file a VAWA self-petition?

Filing the self-petition, by itself, will not allow you to work legally. Once US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves your VAWA self-petition, USCIS will also give you a legal work permit, which is known as an “Employment Authorization Document” or “EAD.”1

If the abuser is your US citizen spouse, child, or parent, you may be able to get a work permit faster than if the abuser is a legal permanent resident.2 You should discuss getting your work permit with your attorney because once your self-petition is approved, there may be additional papers that will need to be filed, depending on your situation.

1 8 USC § 1154(a)(1)(K); INA § 204(a)(1)(K)
2 8 CFR § 274a.12(c)(9)

Can family members be included in my self-petition?

When you file a VAWA self-petition, you may be able to include some of your close relatives as “derivatives.” If the abuser is your spouse, you may be able to include your children who are under 21 and unmarried at the time of filing your petition. If the abuser is your parent, you may be able to include your children who are under 21 and unmarried at the time of filing your petition. If the abuser is your adult child, you cannot include other relatives as derivatives.

Can men qualify for VAWA self-petitioning?

If I don't qualify for a VAWA self-petition, are there other options?

If you are a victim of domestic violence, but you do not think that you qualify for a VAWA self-petition, check out the U Visa for Crime Victims page and the T Visa for Trafficking Victims sections of our website to see if you might qualify for either of those immigration benefits. The best way to determine your eligibility is to discuss your personal situation with an immigration attorney with experience in VAWA. Our National Organizations - Immigration page lists national organizations working in the area of immigration law and our Finding a Lawyer page includes the contact information of legal organizations and lawyer referral services by state.

If my self-petition is approved, what do I get?

Once your self-petition is approved, you may be able to get:

  • Work authorization: This allows you to work legally in the country. It’s is often called a “work permit” but the technical name is an “Employment Authorization Document” or “EAD.”1
  • Some public benefits: Please consult with an attorney who is familiar with public benefits for immigrants to determine what benefits you might qualify for. You can also check the NILC website for details of public benefits available to some immigrants.
  • Lawful permanent residence: For more information, see If my self-petition is approved, when can I apply for legal permanent residence status (green card)?

1 8 USC § 1154(a)(1)(K); INA § 204(a)(1)(K)

Eligibility for VAWA self-petitions

Step 1: You must have one of the "qualifying relationships" to the person abusing you.

What relationships could qualify me for a VAWA self-petition?

If you answer “yes” to any of the questions below, you may qualify for a VAWA self-petition:

  1. Are you or were you married to a US citizen or lawful permanent resident?
  2. Are you or were you the child or step-child of a US citizen or lawful permanent resident?
  3. Are you or were you the parent of a US citizen?

If I am married to an abuser, do I qualify?

If you answer “yes” to any of the questions below, you may qualify for a VAWA self-petition, regardless of whether your partner is of the same sex1 or the opposite sex:

  1. Are you currently married to a US citizen or lawful permanent resident?
  2. Did you get divorced from your US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse within the past two years? And was the divorce connected to the abuse? Note: You must be able to answer “yes” to both questions to qualify under this category.
  3. Did you marry your US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse believing s/he was unmarried but later found out s/he was already married?
  4. Were you married to a US citizen spouse who died within the past two years? Note: This does not apply if your spouse was a lawful permanent resident.
  5. Were you married to your US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse but s/he lost his/her immigration status within the past two years due to domestic violence?

Even if you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, you will still have to prove to USCIS that your marriage was in “good faith.”2 This means that you didn’t marry your spouse primarily because you wanted to get immigration status.3 However, it’s OK if one of the reasons you got married was for immigration purposes – as long as you also got married because you wanted to spend your life together. For information on how to show good faith marriage, see How can I prove that I got married in good faith?

1Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015)
2 INA § 204(a)(1)(A)(iii), (a)(1)(B)(ii)
3 See, e.g., Matter of Patel, 19 I&N Dec. 774, 783 (BIA 1988) (“Such marriages, entered into for the primary purpose of circumventing the immigration laws, have not been recognized as enabling an alien spouse to obtain immigration benefits”) (citing Matter of McKee, 17 I&N Dec. 332 (BIA 1980); Lutwak v. United States, 344 U.S. 604 (1953); McLat v. Longo, 412 F. Supp. 1021 (D.V.I. 1976); Matter of M-, 8 I&N Dec. 217 (BIA 1958)); Matter of McKee, 17 I&N Dec. 332, 333 (BIA 1980) (“A marriage that is entered into for the primary purpose of circumventing the immigration laws, referred to as a fraudulent or sham marriage, has not been recognized as enabling an alien spouse to obtain immigration benefits”); Lutwak v. U.S., 344 U.S. 604, 613 (1953) (finding no good faith marriage where there was “no intention to marry and consummate the marriages even for a day”); U.S. v. Rubenstein, 151 F.2d 915 (2nd Cir. 1945) (holding that there was no valid marriage where marriage was entered into solely for immigration purposes, and not for ordinarily understood purpose of marriage)

How can I prove that I got married in good faith?

USCIS cannot require you to provide a particular type of evidence to prove that you married your spouse in good faith, and there is no magic piece of evidence that will provide definitive proof of your good faith marriage. However, common types of evidence include:

  • a statement from you in which you explain how your relationship developed and why you decided to marry your spouse;
  • birth certificates of any children that you have together;
  • photographs of you and your spouse at different times, in different locations;
  • evidence of your courtship, such as text messages, call records, emails, and letters;
  • evidence of shared financial assets or responsibilities, such as joint tax returns, joint property ownership, joint leases, joint bank accounts, joint credit cards, and shared insurance plans; and
  • statements from friends or family who were familiar with your relationship or your reasons for marrying your spouse.

Does a common law marriage count as being “married to” the abuser?

A common law marriage could count as a marriage for immigration purposes if the laws of the state or country where you had the relationship recognize common law marriages. For a list of US states that recognize common-law marriage and each state’s legal requirements, you can go to the National Conference of State Legislatures website. You will need to work with an immigration lawyer to put together the documents to prove your common law marriage.

Immigration officials may look at the following factors to determine if you have a valid common law marriage:

  • When and where did the relationship begin?
  • What was the intent of you and the abuser with respect to what the relationship was to be?
  • Were you generally known as spouses by neighbors, friends, and the community?
  • Did either of you introduce one another as a spouse?
  • Did either of you purchase a life insurance policy describing one or the other as the beneficiary spouse?
  • Is there birth registration or school registration of your children showing each of you as the parents?
  • Is there a credit card account describing one of you as the spouse of the other?
  • Did either of you name the other one as the beneficiary spouse of the other’s pension rights?
  • Is there any other information that would tend to demonstrate that you both have, from the beginning, lived the type of existence that would be normal for a lawfully married couple?1

1 See Adjudicator’s Field Manual, section 74.2(e); see also USCIS Policy Manual, Part G, Chapter 2(B)

If I am married, can I still qualify as an “abused child”?

In order to qualify for a self-petition as the abused child of a US citizen or legal permanent resident, you must be unmarried at the time of filing the self-petition and remain unmarried until it has been approved. It is okay to get married after your self-petition is granted.1

1 INA § 204(h)

If I am the child or step-child of an abuser, do I qualify?

If you are under age 21 and not married, you may qualify for a VAWA self-petition if you answer “yes” to any of the questions below:

  1. Is your abusive parent a US citizen or lawful permanent resident?
  2. Is your abusive step-parent a US citizen or lawful permanent resident and s/he married your parent when you were age 17 or younger?
  3. Is your abusive adoptive parent a US citizen or lawful permanent resident and were you adopted before you turned 16?
  4. Did your abusive parent lose her or his status as a US citizen or lawful permanent resident within the past two years because of the abuse?1

If you are over 21 and not married, however, you may still be able to file a VAWA self-petition if:

  • you file before you turn 25;
  • you can prove that when you were under 21, you would have qualified to file a self-petition; and
  • you can prove that the abuse was a “central reason” for not filing before you turned 21.2

Another possible immigration remedy for a child who was abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent is Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). It is important to know that you can still be considered to be “abandoned” by one parent even if you are living with, and being supported by, your other parent. If SIJ classification is granted, you may qualify for lawful permanent residency. You can read more about the requirements on the USCIS.gov website. Please talk to a lawyer who specializes in SIJS for specific advice.

1 INA § 204(a)(1)(A)(iv), (a)(1)(B)(iii)
2 INA § 204(a)(1)(D)(v)

If I am the parent or step-parent of an abuser, do I qualify?

If you answer “yes” to any of the questions below, you may qualify for a VAWA self-petition but keep in mind that your abusive child or step-child must be age 21 or older:

  • Is your abusive child a US citizen? Note: If your abusive child is a legal permanent resident, you do not qualify.
  • Did your abusive US citizen child die within the past two years?
  • Did your abusive US citizen child lose his/her status within the past two years because of abuse?1

1 INA § 204(a)(1)(A)(vii)

Step 2: You must prove that you were abused.

What type of abuse can qualify me for a self-petition?

You must prove that you were the victim of “battery or extreme cruelty.” This is the phrase that is written in VAWA and it covers most forms of domestic abuse, including abusive acts that are not physical, such as threats to get you deported if you were to report the abuse to law enforcement. You should work with your domestic violence counselor to explain, in detail, all the kinds of abuse you suffered. If you are/were married to the abuser, you should also explain any abuse that your children suffered.1

1 8 CFR § 204.2(c)(1)(vi)

What other requirements related to the abuse must I prove?

A few other requirements related to the abuse that you must meet are:

  1. If the abuser is/was your spouse, at least some of the abuse to you or your children must have happened while you were married.1Note: It is OK if some of the abuse took place before you were married, as long as there is a pattern of abuse that continued during your marriage.
    • If you do not currently live in the United States, at least some of the abuse must have taken place in the US. Note: If you were only abused abroad, then you must show that your abusive spouse, parent, or child was an employee of the US government or a member of the US the military at the time.2
    • If you currently live in the United States, then it does not matter where the abuse occurred.
  2. You must have lived with the abuser in the same home at some point.3Note: If you only lived together before you came to the US, you should still be able to file a VAWA self-petition but it’s important to work with a knowledgeable lawyer you because this is one of the reasons that USCIS could deny your case.

1 INA § 204(a)(1)(A)(iii)(I)(bb), (a)(1)(B)(ii)(I)(bb); 8 CFR § 204.2(c)(1)(vi)
2 INA § 204(a)(1)(A)(v), (a)(1)(B)(iv); See also USCIS Policy Memorandum, “Eligibility to Self-Petition as a Battered or Abused Parent of a U.S. Citizen; Revisions to Adjudicator’s Field Manual (AFM) Chapter 21.15 (AFM Update AD 06-32),” PM-602-0046, August 30, 2011.
3 INA § 204(a)(1)(A)(iii)(II)(dd), (a)(1)(B)(ii)(II)(dd)

Step 3: You must show that you have “good moral character.”

What does it mean to have good moral character?

In order to qualify for a VAWA self-petition, you must be a person of “good moral character.”1 Immigration laws don’t specifically define what “good moral character” is but the laws do list various acts that could disqualify (“bar”) someone from proving good moral character. However, you may qualify for a waiver, which could excuse any acts that disqualify you, if your good moral character problem is connected to the abuse you suffered. An immigration lawyer with experience in VAWA will help you figure out whether this applies to you.

As part of proving your good moral character, if you are age 14 or older, you will need to submit a police clearance for each place in which you lived for at least six months during the past three years.2 Alternatively, you can get an FBI background check, which covers all states. If you are younger than 14, USCIS will assume (“presume”) that you have good moral character so you don’t need to provide police clearance.3

1 INA § 204(a)(1)(A)(iii)(II)(bb), (a)(1)(B)(ii)(bb)
2 8 CFR § 204.2(c)(2)(v), (e)(2)(v)
3 8 CFR § 204.2(e)(2)(v)

Applying for a VAWA self-petition

What will I need in order to apply for a VAWA self-petition?

The first step is to get a lawyer, if possible, with experience doing VAWA self-petitions. Next, you will fill out, with the attorney’s help, a Form I-360. This is a form people use to apply for many different kinds of status, so it can be very confusing. There are also several other forms you must file, which your attorney will know.

You will need to write a personal statement, which can be very helpful in winning your case. It is the only opportunity that you have to tell your story in your own words and for USCIS to hear your “voice.” An attorney or advocate can help you organize your story but your personal statement should be in your own words. You can also use your statement to explain how you meet the other requirements for a VAWA self-petition, especially if you don’t have a lot of other documents to support your case.

You may also need to work with others, such as a domestic violence advocate, a mental health counselor, and other professionals who can write “corroborating” statements, which back up your claims of abuse.1Corroborating statements can describe the facts of the abuse, as you told them to the advocate or counselor, and explain how those facts are domestic violence in your case. The advocate can explain, for instance, the details of any economic control, humiliation, and isolation you experienced and how those are forms of power and control commonly used by abusers. Corroborating statements can be very helpful, especially for when the abuse was not physical or there are no police reports, protection orders, or medical reports. An advocate who works with you can also help you find and collect other evidence that supports your case. Note: There may be things that the abuser did that are just too hard for you or your children to write down in your personal statement. If you told those things to your advocate or counselor, s/he can discuss those facts in his/her corroborating statement and explain what kind of domestic abuse it was, such as marital rape, for instance. It is OK for you to say it’s too hard for you to describe certain incidents of abuse as long as someone else, like your counselor, can describe it in detail for you, based on what you told him/her.

The law says that you can provide “any credible evidence” for your case,2 but USCIS may think some kinds of evidence are more believable (“credible”) than others. Evidence besides your own statement that may support your case (“corroboration”) includes anything from medical, legal, or social service systems that supports your own story and shows you meet the requirements. USCIS likes evidence from other “systems” because those systems are seen as having “experts.” USCIS will, however, look at evidence from other sources too, especially if you and your lawyer explain why you couldn’t get “systems” evidence and why this source is believable, trustworthy, and knowledgeable. For some practice pointers on how your lawyer can help you send the best evidence you can to USCIS, go to ASISTA’s website.

1 See 8 CFR § 204.2(c)(2)(i)
2 8 USC 1154(a)(1)(J); INA § 204(a)(1)(J)

Can I file for a VAWA self-petition if I am in another country?

If you otherwise qualify for a self-petition, you can apply while you are in another country if any of the following are true:

  1. The abuser is an employee of the US government or a member of the US military, and s/he abused you while you were both living abroad;
  2. The abuser is an employee of the US government or a member of the US military, the abuser is/was your spouse, and s/he abused your child while you were both living abroad;
  3. You are currently living abroad and the abuser abused you while you were in the United States; or
  4. You are currently living abroad, the abuser is/was your spouse, and the abuser abused your child while you were in the United States.1

For numbers 3 or 4 above, it does not matter if the abuser is living with you abroad or not.

Note: If you are currently in the US and you are planning to flee to another country and file for a VAWA self-petition, there are a few things that you should try to do before leaving the US since they will be easier to gather while you are in the US:

  • Gather proof of the abuse through any documents that may exist, such as police reports, doctors’ records, court orders, etc.
  • If you are 14 or over, obtain a police clearance for each place where you have lived for at least six months during the last three years. Alternatively, you can get an FBI background check, which covers all states.
  • Talk to any possible witnesses to the abuse who may be willing to write affidavits or statements on your behalf. Make sure you have multiple ways to contact them, such as their email address, phone number, and social media accounts so you can reach them.
  • Find an immigration attorney in the US who is willing to help you even if you are living abroad. Then, decide together the best way to communicate with each other once you leave, such as email, WhatsApp, etc. The attorney should be able to help you figure out what other evidence you will need to gather and how much time you will need to collect it all before leaving the US.

1 INA § 204(a)(1)(A)(v), (a)(1)(B)(iv); See also USCIS Policy Memorandum, “Eligibility to Self-Petition as a Battered or Abused Parent of a U.S. Citizen; Revisions to Adjudicator’s Field Manual (AFM) Chapter 21.15 (AFM Update AD 06-32),” PM-602-0046, August 30, 2011.

Will I have to testify about the abuse or be interviewed by the government?

USCIS will not interview you about your VAWA self-petition and there is no court date so you will not have to testify about the abuse. USCIS will decide whether to grant your self-petition based on the written evidence that you submit. This is why it is very important to provide sufficient evidence of your eligibility in your application.

How long will it take for my VAWA self-petition to be decided?

USCIS’s processing times have changed over the years, and it is difficult to predict how long a self-petition that is filed now will take. However, as of May 2021, USCIS is processing VAWA self-petitions that were filed about two years ago. You can find USCIS’s updated case processing times on the USCIS website. Because it takes so long for the government to review the self-petition and they may have additional questions for you, it is very important to keep your mailing address up to date the entire time that your petition is pending.

What happens after my lawyer files my self-petition?

After your attorney files your self-petition, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sends a receipt to the address you provided on your application. That receipt will tell you what date USCIS received your application.

Be sure to use a safe address where the abuser will not get the mail and where you can be sure that you will receive it. USCIS may later request additional evidence from you so it’s very important to use an address where you will be sure to receive mail. Many people use their lawyer’s office address.

If the USCIS believes that you would meet all of the requirements if all of the information in your application were true, it will issue an “establishment of prima facie case” notification. This notice is a letter that you can use to get certain public benefits, depending on your state’s laws. Please consult with an attorney familiar with public benefits for immigrants to determine what public benefits you may be eligible for. The notice of prima facie case does not mean that USCIS has approved your VAWA self-petition.

Am I protected from deportation while my VAWA self-petition is pending?

Unfortunately, having a pending VAWA self-petition does not mean that you have lawful status in the United States. However, your immigration attorney may be able to ask the government not to deport you or to stop your removal proceedings based on your pending self-petition. If you are arrested by immigration authorities, you should consult your immigration attorney immediately.

If I have been the victim of trafficking, should I apply for VAWA or for a T visa?

If you were forced you to perform sex work or labor in the U.S., you could qualify for both a T visa, which helps victims of human trafficking, and a VAWA self-petition if you were married to your trafficker or your trafficker was your parent who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, or if your trafficker was your adult U.S. citizen son or daughter. You don’t have to be part of a major sex or labor trafficking ring to be a human trafficking victim.

Here are some reasons why you may want to apply for a VAWA self-petition instead of a T visa:

  • USCIS takes about two years to decide a VAWA self-petition, but it can take anywhere from two to four years to decide a T visa.
  • Unless you get “continued presence,” you cannot get a work permit through the T visa until your application is approved. If you file an application for lawful permanent residence with your VAWA self-petition, you can get a work permit while the self-petition is pending.
  • T visas require that you go along with any reasonable requests for assistance from law enforcement in investigating or prosecuting the crime unless you were under 18 when you were trafficked or are too traumatized to help law enforcement. VAWA does not require that.
  • To qualify for a T visa, you must be a victim of trafficking. For VAWA, you must prove “battery or extreme cruelty,” which is a much broader term that includes many more types of abuse.
  • Unless you can get a letter from the Department of Justice to show that the investigation into your trafficking is closed or you were under 18 when you were trafficked, you must wait three years after your T visa is approved to file for lawful permanent residence. VAWA self-petitioners can be eligible for lawful permanent residence immediately when their self-petition is approved.

And here are some reasons why you may want to apply for a T visa instead of a VAWA self-petition:

  • If you were abused by your U.S. citizen child, you cannot include any derivatives in your VAWA self-petition. If you were abused by your spouse or parent, you can only include your unmarried children under 21 in your VAWA self-petition. The T visa could allow you to include more family members as derivatives.
  • Trafficking victims with approved T visas are eligible for the same public benefits as refugees. These benefits are typically more generous than what VAWA self-petitioners can receive. In addition, the federal government has a special assistance program for trafficking victims called the Trafficking Victims Assistance Program (TVAP), which can provide financial and case management support even before you file a T visa application.
  • Depending on which grounds of inadmissibility apply in your case, it may be easier to get a waiver with a T visa than with a VAWA self-petition. Almost all grounds of inadmissibility can be waived with a T visa, but the VAWA waivers of inadmissibility are less generous.

Before you file any papers with USCIS, you should discuss your options with an immigration lawyer with experience in VAWA and T visas to determine what would be the best option in your case. To find help, please go the National Organizations - Immigration page or our Finding a Lawyer page. If your lawyer needs assistance, s/he can call ASISTA for help.

Getting lawful permanent residence through a VAWA self-petition

What are the "grounds of inadmissibility" and how can they affect my chances of getting lawful permanent residence?

Most people who want to enter the US or get legal status in the US must show they are not barred by a long set of rules called the “grounds of inadmissibility.” This is also true for approved VAWA self-petitioners who are filing for lawful permanent residence. These grounds of inadmissibility rules are very complicated and your lawyer will need to know what the immigration courts and federal courts have said about them to answer the government’s questions correctly.

If you have done something that conflicts with one of the “grounds” on the list, you may be able to ask for a waiver, which would allow you to get legal status despite having done something that conflicts with the grounds. US Citizenship and Immigration Services will consider the pros and cons of your application to decide whether you should get the waiver, and therefore lawful permanent residence. If USCIS denies you the waiver, it will deny your case and may put you into immigration proceedings, which may result in your deportation. This is one main reason you must work with an immigration lawyer who knows about VAWA self-petitions.

1 8 USC § 1182; INA § 212

If my self-petition is approved, when can I apply for lawful permanent residence (green card)?

You may be able to file for lawful permanent residence at the time of filing the VAWA self-petition or you may need to wait several years after the self-petition is approved before you can file, depending on various factors, which we discuss below.

Also, in addition to filling out the necessary forms, your lawyer will have to show that the special barriers to getting status, which are known as the “grounds of inadmissibility,” do not apply to you, or that you qualify for a waiver, which means you should get status even if they do apply to you. For more information, see What are the “grounds of inadmissibility” and how can they affect my chances of getting lawful permanent residence?

If you answer “yes” to any of the questions below, you and your attorney may be able to file for your lawful permanent residence at the same time that you file your VAWA self-petition (Form I-360) or at any time after that:

  • Is/was the abuser your US citizen spouse?
  • Is/was the abuser your US citizen parent?
  • Is/was the abuser your US citizen child who is age 21 or older?1

If your abusive spouse or parent is a lawful permanent resident, you may have to wait several years to file for lawful permanent residence. Exactly when you can file is determined by a complicated system.2 You will need to work with an immigration attorney to figure out when you can file, what forms you will need to use, and what else you will need to show. If you file the wrong forms, fill them out incorrectly, or do not explain why any special barriers that apply to you should not count, you may end up in immigration court facing deportation.

1 INA § 201(b)(2)(A)(i)
2USCIS website – Visa Availability and Priority Dates

Once I have permanent residency, when can I apply for my citizenship?

If you qualified for VAWA through marriage to an abusive US citizen or due to being the child of an abusive US citizen parent, you can apply for citizenship (naturalization) after having your legal permanent residency for three years.

If you qualified for VAWA through marriage to an abusive legal permanent resident, due to being the child of an abusive legal permanent resident parent, or due to being the parent of an abusive US citizen, you can apply for citizenship (naturalization) after having your legal permanent residency for five years.1

1 See USCIS website & USCIS Interoffice memorandum, 1/27/05

VAWA Battered Spouse or Child Waiver

Basic information and definitions

What is a battered spouse or child waiver? How do I know if I am eligible?

A battered spouse waiver and a battered child waiver are legal protections under VAWA for immigrant victims of abuse who have conditional permanent residence. Normally, once you are married to your US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse for two years, you can apply to get the “condition” removed from your lawful permanent residence when your spouse, who filed the initial application for your status, signs a “joint petition” with you. However, when there is domestic violence, the abusive spouse may refuse to file the joint petition or use it as a tool of power and control to further abuse you. This is why Congress created the battered spouse waiver under VAWA. If you are abused, you can file for a “waiver” of this “joint petition” requirement so that you don’t need your spouse’s participation in getting the condition removed from your conditional permanent residence status. If you can prove that you were abused by your spouse or parent, you can get this VAWA battered spouse waiver.

If your US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse filed a family immigration petition for your children, they also may be able to get the “condition” removed without the abuser signing a “joint petition” based on the abuse committed against you or them by your spouse. If your children received their conditional permanent residence at the same time as you or within 90 days after you, you can include them as “derivatives” on your waiver application.1 Otherwise, your children would file a battered child waiver.

The other eligibility requirements that you’d have to prove to get a battered spouse or child waiver are:

  1. the marriage that is the basis for conditional permanent residence was a “good faith marriage;” and
  2. during the marriage, you or your child were battered or subjected to extreme cruelty by the US citizen or legal permanent resident abuser.1 “Extreme cruelty” is any form of power and control and includes, but is not limited to, being the victim of or threatened with an act of violence, forcible detention that results in physical or mental harm, psychological or sexual abuse, rape, molestation, incest, and forced prostitution.2

1I-751 Form Instructions
2 INA § 216(c)(4)(C)

What is "conditional permanent residence"?

Conditional permanent residence is a special type of permanent residence for certain spouses of US citizens and lawful permanent residents. If you’ve been married less than two years to a US citizen or lawful permanent resident at the time that you get lawful permanent residence, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will grant you “conditional permanent residence.” One way to determine if you have conditional permanent residence is to look at the end-date on your “green card”. A conditional permanent resident gets a green card that is valid for two years instead of ten years.1

Your children may also have conditional permanent residence if your US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse filed a family immigration petition for them.2

Note: If the abuser won’t file a joint petition with you and you don’t apply for a VAWA battered spouse waiver before your conditional permanent residence expires, you will lose your lawful permanent residence,3 and the government may place you and your children in removal proceedings. However, you can still file your battered spouse waiver or battered child waiver even after your conditional permanent residence has expired.

1 8 CFR § 216.5(e)(3)(i)
2 INA § 216(a)(1), (g)
3 INA § 216(c)(2)

Who is eligible for a battered spouse or child waiver?

You may be eligible for a battered spouse or child waiver if you meet all of the requirements below:

  • you have conditional legal permanent residence as the spouse of a US citizen (USC) or legal permanent resident (LPR) because your marriage was less than two years old when you obtained your residence; or you have conditional legal permanent residence as a child because your parent’s USC spouse filed a petition for you and the marriage was less than two years old when you obtained your residence;
  • the marriage that is the basis for conditional residence was a good faith marriage; and
  • during the marriage, the spouse or child was battered or subjected to extreme cruelty by the USC or LPR abuser.1 “Extreme cruelty” is any form of power and control and includes, but is not limited, to the following: being the victim of or threatened with an act of violence, forcible detention that results in physical or mental harm, psychological or sexual abuse, rape, molestation, incest, and forced prostitution.2

1 INA § 216(c)(4)(C)
2 8 CFR § 216.5(e)(3)(i)

When do I apply for a battered spouse or child waiver?

Normally, you would file a “joint petition” with your spouse or parent to get lawful permanent residence without any “conditions” during the 90 days before your conditional permanent residence expires.1 If the spouse or parent who filed for you is an abuser, however, VAWA allows you to file a “waiver” of this requirement based on abuse.2 The abuse could have taken place at any time, even after your conditional permanent residence has expired.3 To avoid the risk of being placed in removal proceedings, however, you should file the waiver before your conditional permanent residence expires.

By filing for a battered spouse or child waiver, this means you won’t need your abusive spouse to sign any paperwork for you. Instead, you must work with your lawyer and domestic violence counselor to gather evidence of the abuse that you suffered as well as your “good faith marriage” and to file the correct paperwork. It will be very hard to get a waiver without help from an attorney and domestic violence advocate.

Our Immigration page lists national organizations working in the area of immigration law and our Finding a Lawyer page includes the contact information of legal organizations and lawyer referral services by state. You can find domestic violence advocates on our Advocates and Shelters page.

1 8 USC § 1186a(c)(1); INA § 216(c)(1)
2 8 USC § 1186a(c)(4)(C); INA § 216(c)(4)(C)
3Matter of Stowers, 22 I&N Dec. 605 (BIA 1999)

If my spouse was already married to someone else when we got married, can I still qualify for a battered spouse waiver?

If you married your spouse believing that it was a valid marriage but later discovered that your spouse was already married to someone else, you may still qualify for a battered spouse waiver. You would still need to show that you intended to marry your spouse in good faith and that your intended spouse subjected you or your child to battery or extreme cruelty after the marriage ceremony.1

1 INA § 216(c)(4)(D)

How can I prove that I got married in good faith?

To prove your case, you will need to show that you married your US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse in “good faith.” This means that you didn’t marry your spouse primarily because you wanted to get immigration status.1 However, it’s OK if one of the reasons you got married was for immigration purposes – as long as you also got married because you wanted to spend your life together.

If you are filing for a battered child waiver, you will need to show that your parent married their US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse in “good faith.”

USCIS cannot require you to provide a particular type of evidence to prove that you married your spouse in good faith, and there is no magic piece of evidence that will provide definitive proof of your good faith marriage. However, common types of evidence include:

  • a statement from you in which you explain how your relationship developed and why you decided to marry your spouse;
  • birth certificates of any children that you have together;
  • photographs of you and your spouse at different times, in different locations;
  • evidence of your courtship, such as text messages, call records, emails, and letters;
  • evidence of shared financial assets or responsibilities, such as joint tax returns, joint property ownership, joint leases, joint bank accounts, joint credit cards, and shared insurance plans; and
  • statements from friends or family who were familiar with your relationship or your reasons for marrying your spouse.

If you are filing for a battered child waiver, you can work with your parent and your attorney to determine what evidence you and your parent can provide to prove your parent’s good faith marriage.

1 8 CFR § 216.5(a)(1)(ii); See Matter of Patel, 19 I&N Dec. 774, 783 (BIA 1988) (“Such marriages, entered into for the primary purpose of circumventing the immigration laws, have not been recognized as enabling an alien spouse to obtain immigration benefits”) (citing Matter of McKee, 17 I&N Dec. 332 (BIA 1980); Lutwak v. United States, 344 U.S. 604 (1953); McLat v. Longo, 412 F. Supp. 1021 (D.V.I. 1976); Matter of M-, 8 I&N Dec. 217 (BIA 1958)); Matter of McKee, 17 I&N Dec. 332, 333 (BIA 1980) (“A marriage that is entered into for the primary purpose of circumventing the immigration laws, referred to as a fraudulent or sham marriage, has not been recognized as enabling an alien spouse to obtain immigration benefits”); Lutwak v. U.S., 344 U.S. 604, 613 (1953) (finding no good faith marriage where there was “no intention to marry and consummate the marriages even for a day”); U.S. v. Rubenstein, 151 F.2d 915 (2nd Cir. 1945) (holding that there was no valid marriage where marriage was entered into solely for immigration purposes, and not for ordinarily understood purpose of marriage).

How can I prove that I suffered battery or extreme cruelty?

Once you establish that you married the abuser in good faith, you must prove that you were the victim of “battery or extreme cruelty” by your US citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse during the marriage. “Battery” refers to physical abuse. “Extreme cruelty” can include psychological or sexual abuse, as well as threatened acts of violence that result in mental harm.1 The term covers most forms of domestic abuse, including abusive acts that are not physical, such as threats to get you deported if you were to report the abuse to law enforcement. You should work with your domestic violence counselor to explain, in detail, all the forms of abuse you suffered. You should also explain any abuse that your children suffered.

USCIS cannot require you to provide a particular type of evidence to prove that you suffered battery or extreme cruelty. However, common types of evidence to prove battery or extreme cruelty can include:

  • a statement from you in which you describe incidences during your marriage when your spouse physically abused you;
  • photographs of injuries;
  • medical records;
  • police reports;
  • a letter from your domestic violence counselor or other mental health service provider;
  • an order of protection, which may be known by a different name, depending on your state;
  • documentation that you live or have lived in a domestic violence shelter; and
  • statements from friends or family members who can describe the abuse and its effect on you.

1 8 CFR 216.5(e)(3)(i)

Can the government tell the abuser about my battered spouse or child waiver application?

The government cannot tell the abuser anything about you, including the fact that you have filed a battered spouse or child waiver application. Your information is confidential, and it is illegal for the government to share it with the abuser. If you suspect that the abuser has contacted the government or that the government has shared any information about you with the abuser, you should tell your immigration attorney immediately. You may be able to file a complaint against the government.1

1 8 USC § 1367

The process for getting a battered spouse or child waiver

What documents will I need in order to apply for a battered spouse or child waiver?

The first step before filing any documents is to get a lawyer, if possible, with experience doing battered spouse or child waivers. Next, with the attorney’s help, you will fill out Form I-751.

You may wish to write a personal statement, which can be very helpful in winning your case, especially if you don’t have a lot of other documents to show good faith marriage or battery or extreme cruelty. It is the first opportunity that you have to tell your story in your own words and for USCIS to hear your “voice.” An attorney or advocate can help you organize your story but your personal statement should be in your own words.

You may also need to work with others, such as a domestic violence advocate, a mental health counselor, and other professionals who can write “corroborating” statements, which back up your claims of abuse. Corroborating statements can describe the facts of the abuse, as you told them to the advocate or counselor, and explain how those facts are domestic violence in your case. The advocate can explain, for instance, the details of any economic control, humiliation, and isolation you experienced and how those are forms of power and control commonly used by abusers. Corroborating statements can be very helpful, especially for when the abuse was not physical or there are no police reports, protection orders, or medical reports. An advocate who works with you can also help you find and collect other evidence that supports your case.

There may be things that the abuser did that are just too hard for you or your children to write down in your personal statement. If you told those things to your advocate or counselor, s/he can discuss those facts in his/her corroborating statement and explain what kind of domestic abuse it was, such as marital rape, for instance. It is OK for you to say it’s too hard for you to describe certain incidents of abuse as long as someone else, like your counselor, can describe it in detail for you, based on what you told him/her. The goal of this law is to help crime victims, not re-traumatize them.

The law says that you can provide “any credible evidence” for your case, but USCIS may think some kinds of evidence are more believable (“credible”) than others. Evidence besides your own statement that may support your case (“corroboration”) includes anything from medical, legal, or social service systems that supports your own story and shows you meet the requirements. USCIS likes evidence from other “systems” because those systems are seen as having “experts.” USCIS will, however, look at evidence from other sources too, especially if you and your lawyer explain why you couldn’t get “systems” evidence and why this source is believable, trustworthy, and knowledgeable. For some practice pointers on how your lawyer can help you send the best evidence you can to USCIS, go to ASISTA’s website.

Will I have to testify about my application?

USCIS can approve a battered spouse or child waiver without an interview, but in most cases, they will want to interview you about your case. If that happens, they will notify you and your lawyer about the date and location of the interview. You will need to work with your lawyer to prepare for the interview.

What happens after my lawyer files my battered spouse or child waiver?

After your attorney files your battered spouse or child waiver, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sends a receipt to the address you provide on your application. That receipt will tell you what date USCIS received your application. The receipt notice will also extend your conditional permanent residence for 18 months.1 The extension will allow you to continue working and maintaining your immigration status while USCIS reviews your application. You should consult with your immigration attorney before traveling while your battered spouse or child waiver application is pending.

Be sure to use a safe address where the abuser will not get the mail and where you can be sure that you will receive it. USCIS may later request additional evidence from you so it’s very important to use an address where you will be sure to receive mail. Many people use their lawyer’s office address.

How long will USCIS take to review my application?

USCIS’s processing times have changed over the years, and it is difficult to predict how long a self-petition that is filed now will take. However, as of May 2021, USCIS is taking between 17 to 35 months to review I-751s, including joint petitions and waiver applications. You can find USCIS’s updated case processing times on the USCIS website. Because it takes so long for the government to review the waiver and they may have additional questions for you, it is very important to keep your mailing address up to date the entire time that your application is pending.

If the battered spouse or child waiver is approved, what will my immigration status be?

If the battered spouse or child waiver is approved, the “condition” in your conditional permanent residence will be removed.1 That means you will have legal permanent residence and you will continue to be able to live and work legally in the US. Your “green card” will be valid for ten years.

If you included any of your children as derivatives, their conditions will also be removed, and they will receive a new “green card” that will be valid for ten years.

1 8 USC § 1186a(c)(3)(B); INA § 216(c)(3)(B)

If the battered spouse or child waiver is approved, how soon can I apply for citizenship?

You can apply for citizenship once you have been a permanent resident for a total of three years. This three-year period includes the time when you were a conditional permanent resident. Depending on when you file your battered spouse or child waiver and how long your case is pending, you may be eligible to apply for citizenship once the waiver is approved or even before then.1

1 See the USCIS website

VAWA Cancellation of Removal

What is VAWA cancellation of removal?

If you are in removal proceedings (formerly known as deportation proceedings) before an immigration judge, and you are abused by your USC or LPR spouse or parent (or you have a child with the USC or LPR who is abused by him/her), it might be possible to apply for “VAWA cancellation of removal.”1 If an application for cancellation of removal is granted, the removal process can be ended and you can receive legal permanent residence.2 Because to be eligible to apply for VAWA cancellation of removal you have to be in removal proceedings, it is extremely important that you have an immigration attorney with experience in VAWA to advise you and represent you. To determine if you qualify for VAWA cancellation of removal or another form of immigration relief, you should consult with an immigration lawyer with experience in VAWA.

To determine if you qualify for a VAWA self-petition or another form of immigration relief, you should consult an immigration lawyer with experience in VAWA. Our Immigration page lists national organizations working in the area of immigration law and our Finding a Lawyer page includes the contact information of legal organizations and lawyer referral services by state.

1 INA § 240A(b)(2); 8 CFR § 1240.11(a)(1)
2 INA § 240A(b)(2)(A)

Who is eligible for VAWA cancellation of removal?

You may be eligible to apply for cancellation of removal if you fall under one of the following categories and meet all other requirements for cancellation of removal:

  • You have been battered or suffered extreme cruelty by a spouse who is/was a USC or LPR;
  • You have been battered or suffered extreme cruelty by a parent who is/was a USC or LPR;
  • You and a USC or LPR have a child together and the child has been battered or suffered extreme cruelty by the USC or LPR parent;1 or
  • You have been battered or suffered extreme cruelty by a person who is a USC or LPR who you thought you had married, but the marriage is not legitimate because the USC or LPR committed bigamy (was already married at the time).2

1 INA § 240A(b)(2)(A)(i)(I), (b)(2)(A)(i)(II)
2 INA § 240A(b)(2)(A)(i)(III)

If the VAWA cancellation of removal is approved, what can I get?

If your application for cancellation of removal is granted, the removal process can be ended and you can receive legal permanent residence.1

1 INA § 240A(b)(2)(A)

U Visa for Crime Victims

Victims of certain crimes, including domestic violence and sexual assault, can be eligible for a U visa. If you prefer, you can go to our Videos page to watch brief videos about U visas in Spanish, with English subtitles.

Basic info and definitions

What is a U visa? How can it help me?

Congress created U visa status in 2000 to help crime victims. The purpose of the U visa is to encourage victims of crime to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute crimes without the fear of being deported.1 The U visa doesn’t cover all crimes but it does include domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and felony assault, among other crimes.2

If you get a U visa, you will get a work permit (“Employment Authorization Document”)3 and the ability to apply for lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) after three years.4 After five years as a legal permanent resident, you can apply for citizenship (naturalization), assuming that you meet all of the other citizenship requirements.5

1New Classification for Victims of Criminal Activity; Eligibility for ‘‘U’’ Nonimmigrant Status, 72 Fed. Reg. 53014 (September 17, 2007)
2 INA § 101(a)(15)(U)(iii)
3 INA § 214(p)(3)(B)
4 INA § 245(m)
5 INA § 316

What crimes could qualify me for a U visa?

Victims of any of the following crimes could qualify for a U visa if the crime took place in the U.S.:

rape; torture; trafficking; incest; domestic violence; sexual assault; abusive sexual contact; prostitution; sexual exploitation; stalking; female genital mutilation; being held hostage; peonage; involuntary servitude; slave trade; kidnapping; abduction; unlawful criminal restraint; false imprisonment; blackmail; extortion; manslaughter; murder; felonious assault; witness tampering; obstruction of justice; perjury; fraud in foreign labor contracting; or attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit any of the above-mentioned crimes.1

However, just because you were the victim of one of these crimes does not mean that you will automatically qualify. You have to meet the other requirements, which are explained in What are the requirements that I must meet to get a U visa?

Note: It is very hard to get a U visa without help from an attorney with experience in U visas. WomensLaw.org strongly recommends that you consult with an immigration lawyer familiar with U visas before applying to see if you qualify for this or other routes to immigration status. Please see the national organizations listed on our National Organizations - Immigration page. For general legal services organizations, not immigration-specific, and referral services to private attorneys, go to our Finding a Lawyer page. Remember to ask the lawyer you hope to work with whether s/he has filed for U visas or has been trained on how to file for U visas, since this may be something immigration lawyers or other lawyers are not normally trained to do. For assistance, your attorney can contact ASISTA.

1 INA § 101(a)(15)(U)(iii)

What are the requirements that I must meet to get a U visa?

To get a U visa, you must do everything explained in #1 and #2 below:

  1. You must get a certification from law enforcement or another certifying agency that says all of the following:
  • you are a victim of one of the U visa crimes;
  • the crime took place in the U.S., including U.S. territories and possessions, or on a U.S. military base;
  • you have information about that crime; and
  • you were helpful, are being helpful, or are likely to be helpful in the criminal investigation or prosecution of that crime.1
  1. Also, you must show that:
  • you suffered substantial physical or mental harm from the crime;2 and
  • none of the grounds of inadmissibility applies to you. “Grounds of inadmissibility” are a long list of crimes and other acts that prevent people from getting status or entering the U.S. Note: If one of the grounds of inadmissibility applies to you, you must ask for a “waiver” in order to be able to qualify for a U visa. It is up to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to decide whether you should get that waiver after weighing the pros and cons of your case.3

1 INA § 214(p)(1)
2 INA § 101(a)(15)(U)(i)(I)
3 INA § 212(d)(14)

After I apply for a U visa, when will I get a work permit and lawful permanent residence (a green card)?

It will take years for you to get a work permit after you apply for a U visa. If you ultimately get U visa status, you will immediately get a four-year work permit because the U visa lasts for four years.1 In rare cases, the U visa status can be extended beyond four years but only if additional time is necessary due to “exceptional circumstances” or if the certifying agency provides a new certification specifically stating that your presence in the U.S. is still required, beyond the four years, to assist in the investigation or prosecution of the crime.2 Here is an example of an “exceptional circumstance” that could qualify you to extend your U visa beyond four years: If your family members are outside of the U.S. when your U visa is approved, they will need to get permission from the U.S. embassy or consulate before coming to the U.S. This process (“consular processing”) can take a long time. If they cannot come to the U.S. before your U visa status expires, you may need to ask USCIS to extend your status because you must still have a valid U visa when your family members arrive.3

After three years in U visa status, you can apply for lawful permanent residence (your “green card”).

1 INA § 214(p)(3)(B)
2 INA § 214(p)(6)
3 See generally, AFM 39.1(g)(2)(A); USCIS PM-602-0032.2, “Extension of Status for T and U Nonimmigrants (Corrected and Reissued),” October 4, 2016

When I apply for a U visa, can my family members also get U visas? What about a work permit and lawful permanent residence?

If you are a crime victim applying for a U visa, you can also file for U visas for some of your close family members as “derivatives.” If you are over 21, you can include your spouse and unmarried children under 21. If you are under 21, you can include your spouse and unmarried children, as well as your parents and unmarried siblings under 18.1 To read about other possible immigration options for children, go to Aside from filing for my child as a derivative, what other immigration options may be available for my child?

If you filed for your U visa but then got married, you can still include your new spouse as a derivative. If your new spouse has children who were under 18 when you got married, you can include them as well.2

Your family members do not have to be victims of crime or have law enforcement certifications. They must show, however, that they are not prohibited (barred) from getting status due to the “grounds of inadmissibility,” which is a long list of crimes and other acts that prevent people from getting status or entering the U.S. Note: If one of these barriers does apply to your family members, they must ask for a “waiver.” It is up to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to decide whether your family members should get that waiver after weighing the pros and cons of their case.

If USCIS approves your family members’ U visas and your family members are in the United States, they will receive U visa status for four years. They will also receive a work permit for four years, and they can apply for lawful permanent residence after three years. If your family members are outside of the United States when the government approves their U visas, they will need to get permission to enter the United States from a U.S. embassy or consulate. Once they enter the United States, they can apply for a four-year work permit. Three years after they enter, they can apply for lawful permanent residence.

Importantly, after you get your U visa, you will not want to apply for lawful permanent residence until all of the family members whom you want to include have gotten their U visas and arrived in the United States, if they were not already here. If you become a permanent resident before their U visas are approved or before they arrive, they will lose their ability to get U visas. If you are concerned that your U visa status may expire before all of your family members have arrived, you should talk to an attorney to see if you can extend your U visa status beyond the normal four years until your family gets to the U.S. on their own U visas and then you can apply for lawful permanent residence.

Note: Here you can see our series of vlogs (videos) in Spanish, with English subtitles, where we discuss what other people you can include on your U visa petition as derivative family members, among other topics.

1 INA § 101(a)(15)(U)(ii)
2USCIS Policy Manual, Vol. 3, Part C, Chp 2.B

Aside from filing for my child as a derivative, what other immigration options may be available for my child?

If you qualify for a U visa and you are thinking of applying for your child as a derivative, you may want to consult with an immigration lawyer first to see if there are any other immigration options for your child. Sometimes it makes sense for children to get status on their own instead of having their status based on your status. For example, some types of immigration cases are decided much faster than U visas, or your child could get a green card faster than s/he could through a U visa. Also, if your child has his/her own child, your child may be able to include your grandchild as a derivative in your child’s own application. Here are some options that can be available to children for you to discuss with a lawyer:

Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS)

Children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both of their parents may be able to get Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), which would allow them to file for lawful permanent residence (a “green card”). It is important to understand that a child can be considered to be “abandoned” if one parent is absent even if the child has a good home with the non-absent parent. However, a child cannot file for status for either parent as part of this application. You can read more about the requirements for SIJS on the USCIS.gov website. Please talk to a lawyer who specializes in SIJS for help. There are special requirements for SIJS, including getting a decision from a state court judge, that are unique to SIJS.

VAWA self-petition

Children who are/were abused by a parent who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident may be able to file for their own VAWA self-petition. See our VAWA for Abuse Victims page for more information.

Preparing to apply for a U visa

What needs to be included in my U visa application?

*Please note that reading this section is not enough to be sure you are filing everything you need. We strongly encourage you to find an attorney with experience working in U visas to help you.*

With an attorney’s help, you will fill out an “Application for U Nonimmigrant Status,” which is called Form I-918. You must also include the Form I-918 Supplement B (the law enforcement certification). Depending on your situation, you may include the Form I-192 (the waiver for any grounds of inadmissibility) and the Form I-765 (for a work permit). You should consult with your attorney to see which forms to file in your case.

Along with the forms mentioned above, you must send USCIS a personal statement that describes how you were victimized.1 The personal statement is very important. It is the only opportunity you have to tell your story and for USCIS to hear your “voice.” An attorney or a crime victim advocate can help you organize your story but it should be in your own words. You should also use your statement to explain how you meet the other requirements, especially if you don’t have a lot of other documents to support your case.

You will want to send supporting evidence to show that you are eligible for a U visa.2 If you are seeing a mental health therapist or counselor, a statement from that person could be supporting evidence. The therapist can describe the facts of the crime as you told them to him/her and how the crime affected you, which may be very helpful to show the “substantial harm” requirement. If it would re-traumatize you to explain the details of what you experienced and its effect in your personal statement, the counselor could do that for you as long as the counselor can describe everything in detail for you, based on what you told him/her. The goal of this law is to help crime victims, not re-traumatize them.

Other supporting evidence includes anything from medical, legal, or social service systems that supports your own story and helps to prove that you meet the requirements. USCIS likes evidence from other “systems” because people work in those systems are considered “experts.” USCIS will, however, look at evidence from other sources too, especially if you and your lawyer explain: (1) why you couldn’t get “systems” evidence; and (2) why this source of the supporting (corroborating) evidence is believable, trustworthy, and knowledgeable.

1 8 CFR § 214.14(c)(2)(iii)
2 8 CFR § 214.14(c)(2)(ii)

How do I show that I am a “victim of a crime”? What is the difference between a direct and indirect victim?

The law enforcement certification should make it clear that you are the victim of a qualifying U visa crime. You should also discuss the details of the crime, if it’s not too traumatic, in your personal statement. Others who know about or witnessed the event may also write declarations describing details of the crime. Police reports, medical records, and other “systems” evidence is helpful, if you have it.

In most cases, the person who actually suffered the crime will be the U visa applicant. These applicants are called “direct” victims. However, USCIS also accepts applications from people who aren’t the direct victims of the crime themselves, but who were victimized by crimes that occurred to their close relatives. These applicants are called “indirect” victims. An indirect victim could be the close relative of a crime victim who is: (1) dead due to murder or manslaughter; or (2) incompetent or incapacitated and cannot provide information about the crime or be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime.1

The “close relatives” who may qualify as indirect victims include:

  • the direct victim’s spouse;
  • the direct victim’s unmarried children under 21 years old; and
  • if the direct victim is under 21 years old, the direct victim’s parents and siblings under 18 years old.1

Although indirect victims are not required to show that they suffered the crime itself, they do need to show all of these remaining requirements:

  • they have information about that crime;
  • they were helpful, are being helpful, or are likely to be helpful in the criminal investigation or prosecution of that crime;
  • they suffered substantial physical or mental harm from the crime; and
  • none of the “grounds of inadmissibility” applies to them, or USCIS waives the grounds of inadmissibility.

In addition, an indirect victim will also need to submit the Form I-918, Supplement B (law enforcement certification) in his/her own name.

Note: The most common indirect victim is the undocumented parent of a child who was sexually abused, regardless of the child’s immigration status. See If my U.S. citizen child is a victim of a crime, can I (the undocumented parent) qualify for a U visa? for more information.

1 8 CFR § 214.14(a)(14)

How do I show that I suffered “substantial harm”?

One of the requirements to get a U visa is that you must show you suffered substantial physical or mental harm as a result of the crime.1 USCIS will consider several factors when deciding whether the harm was “substantial,” including any permanent or serious harm to your appearance, health, or physical or mental well-being.1 You can show this through your personal statement and through supporting evidence, such as medical reports, declarations from mental health providers, and statements from professionals or friends or family who have helped you since the crime. For example, one thing your therapist can discuss in his/her declaration is the connection between the crime and the harm you are suffering, especially if it is too hard for you to provide details in your own declaration.

You should work with your attorney and with a crime victim advocate on how to best show that you suffered substantial harm.

1 8 CFR § 214.14(b)(1)
2 INA § 101(a)(15)(U)(i)(I)

How do I show that I was helpful to law enforcement?

Since Congress created the U visa to help law enforcement as well as crime victims, you must prove that you were helpful to law enforcement or that you are willing to be helpful if needed. However, if the crime victim is under 16, a parent, guardian, or another person who can legally represent the victim (a “next friend”) can be helpful to law enforcement on the minor’s behalf.1 If you are under 16 and neither you nor anyone acting on your behalf has been or is willing to be helpful to law enforcement, then you will not be eligible for a U visa.

The main way to prove helpfulness to law enforcement is through a law enforcement certification, known as Form I-918, Supplement B, that must be signed by law enforcement and included with your U visa application.

Your lawyer or advocate will need to approach law enforcement to ask them to fill out the certification. In addition to explaining that you are the victim of a U visa-qualifying crime, law enforcement should use the form to explain how you are helpful, were helpful, or are willing to be helpful in investigating or prosecuting the crime committed against you.2

It’s important to understand that the law does not require law enforcement to sign certifications and so if you stop being helpful, or refuse to do something law enforcement asks you to do, they may refuse to fill out the certification. Without a law enforcement certification completed, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will deny your case. It’s very important that you work with your victim advocate and your lawyer when talking to law enforcement. They can help make sure you are being helpful to law enforcement while still making decisions that keep you safe.

Remember, you should also explain in detail in your personal statement how you were helpful to law enforcement. If you worked with a crime victim advocate, s/he can also write a corroborating declaration to talk about your helpfulness.

For more information on who can sign a law enforcement certification, see Which government officials and agencies may be able to provide the law enforcement certification that is required?

Note: Here you can see our series of vlogs (videos) in Spanish, with English subtitles, where we discuss the certification and how to get one, among other relevant topics.

1 INA § 101(a)(15)(U)(i)(II) & (III)
2 INA § 214(p)(1)

Which government officials and agencies may be able to provide the law enforcement certification that is required?

The following officials and agencies may be able to provide the law enforcement certification (Form I-918, Supplement B) that is necessary for your U visa application:

  • federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies;
  • prosecutors;
  • judges; or
  • other authorities that are responsible for the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity, such as Child Protective Services and federal and state agencies that do workplace investigations, such as Equal Employment Opportunity and Departments of Labor.1

If you have already reported the crime to law enforcement, your attorney can request the certification from the law enforcement agency. Many law enforcement agencies know about U visas and have employees who are in charge of reviewing certification requests. Other agencies may not be familiar with U visas and may need your attorney or domestic violence advocate to explain the program to them and why they should sign the certification in your case.

The law enforcement agency can sign the certification no matter what the status of the criminal case may be. For example, even if the police never arrested a suspect in your case, they can still sign the certification based on your report. Also, even if the suspect was found not guilty at trial, law enforcement can still sign the certification for you.

1 8 CFR § 214.14(a)(2)

What can I do if law enforcement refuses to sign the certification?

The law does not require law enforcement to sign certifications and so if you stop being helpful, or refuse to do something law enforcement asks you to do, they may refuse to fill out the certification. However, if you believe that the law enforcement agency is wrongfully refusing to sign the certification, your attorney can work with other attorneys, social workers, domestic violence advocates, and other community members to educate the law enforcement agency about the U visa program. Also, many states have passed laws that require law enforcement agencies to respond to your request for certification within a certain amount of time. Some states, like California, even say that law enforcement should assume that you were helpful to them as long as you have not refused or failed to provide assistance.1 If the law enforcement agency is breaking the law by refusing to respond to your request or sign your certification, your attorney may wish to contact ASISTA a national non-profit organization, for help in teaching the law enforcement agency about the U visa.

1 See Immigrant Legal Resource Center’s Guide to State Laws on U Visa and T Visa Certifications

If my U.S. citizen child is a victim of a crime, can I (the undocumented parent) qualify for a U visa?

If you are undocumented and your U.S. citizen child was the victim of one of the qualifying U visa crimes, you (the undocumented parent) may be able to apply for a U visa as an “indirect victim.” When the crime victim is under 21 at the time the crime was committed, the victim’s parents and siblings under 18 may be indirect victims.1 For the more information on indirect victims, go to How do I show that I am a “victim of a crime”? What is the difference between a direct and indirect victim?

1 8 CFR § 214.14(a)(14)(i)

How much does it cost to apply for a U visa?

There are no fees to file a U visa application for you and your family members.1 Some of the related forms and processes do have fees but, depending on your income or financial need, those fees can be waived. For example, there are fees associated with employment authorization and the inadmissibility waiver.

You may ask U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to waive fees for any or all of these forms so you don’t have to pay them, but if they deny your request, they will return any forms that require a fee, and you will need to refile. For example, if you request a fee waiver for the Form I-192 (waiver of inadmissibility) and USCIS denies the fee waiver, they will return your Form I-192, and you will need to refile it. Your attorney can help you figure out whether you might qualify for a fee waiver. If you do, the attorney should help you put together the documents that you will need to submit in order to convince the government to give you a fee waiver.

1 See USCIS website – Forms

Can I apply for a U visa if I am in immigration court for deportation ("removal") proceedings?

If you already have a case in immigration court, or have one coming up because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has detained you, you can still apply for a U visa.1 However, immigration judges do not have the power to give you a U visa. The only thing they might agree to do is to “continue” your case until USCIS decides whether to approve your U visa application. If you are already in immigration court, it is more important than ever that you file a good, complete case with all the forms and documentation that meet all of the requirements. This is hard to do without help from an attorney with experience in U visa cases.

To avoid being deported, you will need an attorney who has experience in immigration court, not just experience with U visas. Your attorney may wish to contact ASISTA, a national non-profit organization, to get the latest strategies and arguments for U visa applicants in immigration and federal court. ASISTA can also talk to your attorney about exploring the option of filing a case in federal court to stop your deportation.

Other national organizations can be found on our National Organizations - Immigration page.

1 8 CFR § 214.14(c)(1)(i), (c)(1)(ii)

After you apply for a U visa

What legal status do I have while I am waiting for the government to review my U visa application?

It will likely take years to get your U visa from the day that you apply for it. As of June 2021, the USCIS website reported that they were reviewing applications that were filed in 2016, five years before. However, any application filed now would likely take much longer than five years to be reviewed because thousands more applications have been filed since 2016 and are already ahead of you in line waiting to be reviewed. One reason it takes so long is that Congress limited the number of U visas the government can give out to 10,000 per year,1 but far more than 10,000 people apply for U visas each year, so the line of applications waiting to get reviewed gets longer and longer every year.

Because it is taking so long for the government to review U visa applications, USCIS may give you a work permit and deferred action while you wait for a final decision. Deferred action is not an immigration status, but it allows USCIS to give you a work permit so you can work legally while you wait for a decision on your U visa. Having deferred action also means that the government thinks you are a low priority for deportation, so it is less likely that you will be deported while you wait for your U visa.

There are two ways to get a work permit and deferred action: (1) through a bona fide determination;2 or (2) through the waitlist.3 It’s important to understand, however, that either process will take years from the day you submit your U visa application.

Bona fide determination
For the bona fide determination, USCIS does a basic review of your application to see if the Form I-918 (U visa application form) and Form I-918 Supplement B (law enforcement certification) were complete and properly filed. In addition, they will make sure that you provided a personal statement about the crime, and they will run a criminal background check on you. Based on your criminal background check and any other information in your file about your criminal and immigration record, USCIS will weigh the pros and cons of giving you a work permit and deferred action. If the pros outweigh the cons, USCIS will give you a work permit and deferred action for four years, which you can renew until your U visa is finally decided. USCIS will not give you a bona fide determination and work permit if any of the following are true:

  • your Form I-918 or Form I-918 Supplement are not complete and properly filed;
  • you do not provide a personal statement;
  • you do not complete your biometrics (fingerprints); or
  • USCIS believes you are a threat to public safety or national security.

If your derivative family members are in the United States, USCIS can also give them a work permit and deferred action. Your derivatives would need to show that their Form I-918 Supplement A (derivative application form) was complete and properly filed and that they have a qualifying relationship to you; in other words, they must show evidence that they are your spouse, child under 21, or if you were under 21 when you filed your U visa, that they are your parent or unmarried sibling under 18. USCIS will also do a criminal background check on them and weigh the pros and cons before deciding whether to give them a four-year work permit and deferred action. USCIS will not give your family members a bona fide determination and work permit if any of the following are true:

  • you (the primary applicant) do not also receive a bona fide determination;
  • their Form I-918 Supplement A is not complete and properly filed;
  • they do not include evidence of their relationship to you;
  • they do not complete their biometrics (fingerprints); or
  • USCIS believes your family members are a threat to public safety or national security.

Waitlist
If after doing a basic review of your application, USCIS decides not to give you a work permit through the bona fide determination, they will do a full review of your application. If they think that they are likely to approve your U visa application but they have run out of visas to give out in the current year, they will put you on a waitlist and give you a work permit and deferred action for four years, which you can renew until a U visa is available for you. USCIS will also put your derivatives on the waitlist and give them deferred action and a work permit if USCIS thinks it is likely to approve your derivatives’ applications.

It may take USCIS several years to complete either a bona fide determination or waitlist review of your case because so many people have applied for U visas and their applications are already waiting in line. While you are waiting for the bona fide determination or waitlist, you will not have a work permit or any legal status or protection from deportation.

Many attorneys are now seeking help from federal courts to get U visa applicants their work permits faster and to stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from deporting U visa applicants who are waiting for the government to decide their cases. If your attorney is considering filing in federal court, please first ask your attorney to contact ASISTA, a national non-profit specializing in immigration law, for help with this.

1 INA § 214(p)(2)
2USCIS Policy Manual, Vol. 3, Part C, Chp. 5
3 8 CFR § 214.14(d)(2); USCIS Policy Manual, Vol. 3, Part C, Chp. 5(c)(5)

Can I get deported while I'm waiting for the government to review my U visa application?

If you get put on the U visa waitlist or get a bona fide determination, it is unlikely, but not impossible, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will try to deport you. Once you are on the waitlist or get a bona fide determination, you get “deferred action.”1 This is not a real immigration status but it allows USCIS to give you a work permit.

However, while you are waiting to hear if you get on the waitlist or if USCIS has made a bona fide determination, you will not have any sort of legal status or deferred action, so you could be at risk of deportation. ICE has a policy that if you have a U visa application pending, they will not arrest, detain, or deport you unless they think you are dangerous to other people.2 However, every ICE officer is different, and ICE can change their policy in the future, so it is important to remember that filing a U visa will not necessarily protect you from ICE.

If you are in immigration court currently because the government is trying to deport you, see Can I apply for U visa status if I am in immigration court for deportation (“removal”) proceedings? for more information.

1 8 CFR § 214.14(d)(2); USCIS Policy Manual, Vol. 3, Part C, Chp. 5
2ICE Directive 11005.3, August 10, 2021

If my U visa application gets approved, when can I get lawful permanent residence (a green card)?

You can apply for lawful permanent residence after you have had your U visa for three years and before your U visa expires.1 To get lawful permanent residence, all of the following must be true:

  1. You have been physically in the U.S. for a “continuous period” of at least three years since the date you got U visa status. A “continuous period” means that you cannot leave the U.S. for 90 days in a row or for 180 days in total over the three years, unless the reason you left was related to the criminal investigation or prosecution. (If your U visa was granted when you were outside of the U.S., the three years starts from the day that you come into the U.S. with a U visa.)
  2. If law enforcement asked you for more help related to the criminal investigation or prosecution since you got your U visa, you did not unreasonably refuse to provide that help.
  3. Your continued presence in the US is “justified on humanitarian grounds, to ensure family unity, or it is in the public interest.”2 USCIS will weigh the pros and cons of your case in deciding whether to approve your green card. Generally, if you do not have any negative factors, such as criminal history or significant immigration violations, it will be considered “in the public interest” for you to continue to be in the U.S. and so USCIS will likely approve your green card application.3 If you do have negative factors in your case, USCIS will weigh them as “cons” in deciding your case.

After you file your application for permanent residence, you will need to wait for USCIS to make its decision, which could take as long as two years. While you wait for the decision, USCIS will extend your U visa status, and you can apply for or renew your work permit.4

1 INA § 245(m); 8 CFR § 245.24(b)
2 INA § 245(m)(1), (m)(2); 8 CFR § 245.24(b), (c)
3 See Matter of Arai, 13 I&N Dec. 494 (BIA 1970) (“In the absence of adverse factors, adjustment will ordinarily be granted, still as a matter of discretion”)
4 INA § 214(p)(6); 8 CFR § 274a.12(c)(9)

If my U visa application gets denied, will I be deported?

If USCIS denies your request for a U visa, then your status is still the same as it was before you applied. This means that if you are in the country without legal documentation, you are at risk for being detained and deported. In addition, by filing a U visa application, you are providing the government with information about you, and you may be telling them that you are living here without lawful status. However, you will not automatically be put into deportation (“removal”) proceedings just because your application was denied.

If your U visa application gets denied, it might be possible to appeal that decision to a higher, supervisory part of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or to file a case in federal court. However, federal courts can only review limited types of U visa denials, so you should contact an immigration attorney with experience in U visas to determine what options you may have. The attorney may want to connect with a national organization with immigration expertise, such as ASISTA or another national organization, which can be found on our National Organizations - Immigration page.

Possible barriers to getting a U visa

What are the grounds of inadmissibility? How can they affect me?

Most people who want to enter the U.S. or get legal status in the U.S. must show they are not prohibited (barred) by a long set of rules called the “grounds of inadmissibility.”1 This is also true for U visa applicants. These rules are very complicated and your lawyer will need to know what the immigration courts and federal courts have said about them in order to understand whether any of the inadmissibility grounds may apply to you.

If you run into problems with one or more of the grounds of inadmissibility, you can apply for a waiver. Then, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will consider the pros and cons of your application and decide whether or not to excuse (“waive”) the inadmissibility ground(s) by granting you a waiver. A waiver can be granted if “it is in the national or public interest” do to so.2 USCIS denies many waivers, which means it also denies U visas for many applicants asking for waivers. This is one main reason you must work with an immigration lawyer or advocate who knows about U visas.

1 To read the list of inadmissibility grounds, go to INA § 212 on our Selected Federal Statutes page
2 INA § 212(d)(14)

If I didn't include my family members on my U visa application, can I include them when I apply for lawful permanent residence?

Although it is usually better to file for U visas for your family members at the time that you file your own petition, if you didn’t do that, you may be able to include them when you file for lawful permanent residence, regardless of whether they are in the U.S. or abroad.1

In other words, when you apply for your green card, you can file a form that would eventually allow your family members to apply for their own green cards members as well.

The process for your family members to get green cards through this process is very different than if you include them at the time that you file your own U visa petition in the following ways:

Forms: When you include your family members as derivatives at the time that you file your own U visa petition, you file Form I-918 Supplement A for each family member, along with any other forms they may need, such as the Form I-192 (waiver of inadmissibility) and Form I-765 (application for employment authorization). However, if you are including your family members when you apply for permanent residence, you file Form I-929 for each family member. They would not need to file any more forms until the Form I-929 is approved.

Timing and Process: You can only file Form I-929 at the same time or after you have applied for permanent residence. In addition, you can file Form I-929 after USCIS has approved your permanent residence application. USCIS will not approve Form I-929 until after you have become a permanent resident. Once the Form I-929 is approved, your family members can immediately file their own application to become permanent residents. If they are outside the U.S. when the Form I-929 is approved, they will need to request permission from the U.S. consulate to enter the United States as lawful permanent residents.

In a Form I-929, you have to show the following:

  • Qualifying relationship: First, you can only file Form I-929 for your spouse and children who are unmarried and under 21. If you are under 21, you can also file for your parents. Unlike when you file a U visa application, you cannot include your siblings, even if you are under 21 and they are unmarried and under 18. Second, your children must remain under 21 and unmarried until USCIS has approved their applications for lawful permanent residence unlike with a U visa where they have to be under 21 and unmarried at the time of the application only. If your children are outside the U.S. when you file for their green cards, they must enter the U.S. with their visa before turning 21. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how long USCIS will take to review the applications, and the process can take years.
  • Extreme Hardship: You must also show that you or your family member will suffer “extreme hardship” if your family member is not permitted to enter or remain in the United States.1 USCIS looks at many things to decide whether you have shown “extreme hardship,” such as:
  • the type and degree of the physical or mental abuse suffered as a result of being a victim of crime;
  • the effect on you or your family member of losing access to the U.S. courts or criminal justice system;
  • the probability that the perpetrator’s family, friends, or others acting on behalf of the perpetrator in the home country would harm you or your children;
  • the need for social, medical, mental health, or other supportive services for victims of crime that are not available or accessible in the home country;
  • in domestic violence cases, whether there are laws and social practices in the home country that punish you or your children because you have been victims of domestic violence or have taken steps to leave an abusive home;
  • the perpetrator’s ability to travel to the home country and the ability and willingness of authorities in the home country to protect you or your children; and
  • your age at the time of entry into the U.S. and at the time you apply for lawful permanent residence. For example, if you are a child and are applying for your parent, you may be able to show that you would suffer extreme hardship if your parent is not allowed to remain in the U.S. with you due to your young age.2

If there are other reasons why you or your family members would suffer extreme hardship, you can each describe those in your personal statements and/or provide other documentation. As always, your and your family members’ personal statements will be crucial towards building your proof of extreme hardship.

1 INA § 245(m)(3)
2 8 CFR § 245.24(h)(1)(iv)

Can I apply for a U visa from another country? What are the obstacles?

You are not required to be in the U.S. to qualify for a U visa although the crime must have taken place within the U.S.1 However, it is very hard to successfully apply for U visa status from outside of the country, mainly because you will need the help of an attorney who knows U visas and most of those attorneys are in the U.S. It is also possible that some of your family members may apply from their home country for their U visas, based on your U visa.

If you apply from abroad, you will be eligible to apply for a work permit only after you enter the U.S. once your U visa is granted.2

When USCIS approves a U visa application, you don’t get an actual visa that you can use for travel. So, if your U visa application is approved while you are outside of the U.S., you will need to apply for an actual visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy to enter the U.S.3

If you are already in the U.S. and planning to leave and apply for a U visa from another country, please talk to an immigration attorney before leaving the U.S. In addition to new forms you may have to file, you probably cannot come back into the U.S. until your U visa is approved.

Before you leave, or if you are already abroad, your attorney should consult with a national organization with expertise in U visas such as ASISTA on this process or another national organization on our National Organizations - Immigration page. Many consulates are still unfamiliar with the U visa and may give inaccurate information to those seeking a U visa from abroad. Other.

1 USCIS website – Victims of Criminal Activity: U Nonimmigrant Status
2 8 CFR § 214.14(c)(7), (f)(7)
3 8 CFR § 214.14(c)(5)(i)(B)

I think I may be eligible. Should I go to my local USCIS (Immigration) office?

It is never a good idea to go to a USCIS (Immigration) office on your own. Only two specific offices of USCIS called the Vermont Service Center and the Nebraska Service Center have the power to decide U visa cases and they do not do any in-person interviews, so there is no reason to go there in person. Most local USCIS officers have not been trained on U visas and may not give accurate information. If you go to a local USCIS office, or any other government office or agency to request a U visa, you may end up in deportation proceedings or in detention.

In all cases, you should consult with an immigration expert with experience in U visas. An attorney can help you figure out if you are likely to qualify for this or any other form of immigration relief, and if there is a risk of being put in removal proceedings (being deported). To find help, please go to the National Organizations - Immigration page. You can also find the contact information for general legal services organizations, not immigration-specific, and referral services to private attorneys on our Finding a Lawyer page.

Can I travel outside of the U.S. if my U visa application is approved?

It is extremely important that you talk to an immigration lawyer with experience in U visa status before traveling because there are many risks:

First, if you were granted U visa status in the U.S., you will have to go to a consulate to get an actual U visa to re-enter the U.S. You are not automatically granted this visa, which is a sticker in your passport needed for traveling, when you are approved for U visa status. It is very hard to get the visa from the consulate without an attorney who knows about U visas.

If you leave the U.S., you may need to wait outside of the U.S. for a long time before your U visa is approved. Once you have U visa status, you should never enter the U.S. illegally. If you come back into the U.S. without permission, you could be detained, deported, and/or criminally charged and you would risk not being able to get back your U visa status.

Before you leave, or if you are abroad, your attorney should consult with a national organization with expertise in U visas, such as ASISTA, on this process, since many consulates are still unfamiliar with the U visa and may give inaccurate information to those processing abroad. Other national organizations can be found on our National Organizations - Immigration page.

Second, you need to be aware of the “continuous physical presence” requirement in order to get lawful permanent residence. Being outside of the U.S. for more than 90 days at one time or more than 180 days in combined trips may prevent you from getting lawful permanent residence.1

Third, if you leave the U.S., you may trigger new grounds of inadmissibility. If so, you’d have to file for a new waiver before you can get a U visa to get back into the U.S.

Fourth, if you already have U visa status and have already filed an application for lawful permanent residence, you must ask USCIS for “advance parole” before leaving the U.S.2 “Advance parole” is permission from the government to travel while you are waiting to get your green card and you will need your attorney’s help to request it. If you don’t get advance parole before leaving the U.S., USCIS will deny your application for lawful permanent residence.

Finally, if you come into the U.S. with a visitor’s visa or another kind of visa after you are granted U visa status, you may not be able to get back your U visa status. This is true whether you are in the U.S. when your U visa is granted and you leave and re-enter without an official visa from the consulate or if you are outside the U.S. when USCIS grants your U visa but you enter the U.S. without an official visa from the consulate. Once USCIS has approved your U visa application, you may only enter the U.S. with an official visa from the consulate or with advance parole if you have filed your application for lawful permanent residence. If you try to come into the U.S. without permission, you may be detained, deported, charged with a federal crime, and you could lose your U visa status.

For all of these reasons, it is extremely important that you talk to an immigration lawyer with experience in U visas before traveling to determine if you can safely travel outside of the U.S. The attorney should be able to determine if any of these risks apply to you by working with one of the national organizations with expertise in U visas such as ASISTA. To find the contact information of other organizations working in the area of immigration law, please see the national organizations listed on our National Organizations - Immigration page.

1 8 CFR § 245.24(a)(1)
2 8 CFR § 245.24(j)

U visas and domestic violence

Can I get a U visa based on domestic violence? Does it matter if the abuser is undocumented or if we are not married?

If you have been the victim of domestic violence, you may qualify for a U visa. You would need to show that the abuse you suffered was actually a crime as defined by the criminal laws of the United States. For example, refusing to give you access to money or calling you mean names might not be a crime, but calling you multiple times and threatening to harm you may be. Every state has different laws, and there are also local and federal laws, so you should talk to a lawyer to find out whether your experience meets the criminal legal definition of domestic violence or of any other crime that could help you qualify for a U visa. Even if the crime in your case does not meet the criminal legal definition of domestic violence, it may still meet the definition for another U visa crime, and you could still qualify.

In addition, unlike VAWA self-petitions, the immigration status of the abuser does not matter for U visa purposes. Also, it does not matter if you are married to the abuser or not.1 If you were abused by an intimate partner, the only thing that matters is that you meet the qualifications for getting U visa status as explained throughout this section.

Note: Here you can see our series of vlogs (videos) in Spanish, with English subtitles, where we discuss what is a U visa, what are the requirements to get a U visa and what crimes qualify someone to get a U visa, among other related topics.

1 INA § 101(a)(15)(U)

If I have been the victim of domestic violence, should I apply for VAWA or for a U visa? What about a T visa?

Some victims of domestic violence are not eligible to apply for a VAWA self-petition because they are not married to the abuser. Other victims are not eligible for VAWA because the abuser is undocumented. For people in either of these situations, the U visa may be their only immigration option based on the domestic violence.

However, if the abuser is your spouse or parent who is a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident, you may qualify for both a U visa and a VAWA self-petition. This could also be true if the abuser is your U.S. citizen child who is at least 21 years old. Some people might choose to file an application for both but most people would usually file for one or the other.

If you qualify for both, here are some reasons why you might choose to file a VAWA self-petition instead of a U visa:

  • VAWA self-petition applications are decided faster than U visa applications, although it still takes years to get a decision on either one.
  • Many VAWA self-petitioners can file an application for lawful permanent residence at the same time that they file the VAWA self-petition. Having a pending application for lawful permanent residence means that you can also get a work permit, even before your VAWA self-petition is decided.
  • U visas require that you report the crime to the authorities and get law enforcement to confirm your helpfulness in a written certification. VAWA does not require either of those things.
  • To qualify for a U visa, the crime committed against you must fall under a list of specific crimes, most of which involve physical or sexual violence. For VAWA, you must prove “battery or extreme cruelty,” which gives you more flexibility and could even take into account emotional and psychological abuse.
  • If the abuser is a U.S. citizen, VAWA self-petitioners can become lawful permanent residents immediately after the self-petition is approved. They do not have to wait three years as they do with a U visa. The same is true if the abuser is a lawful permanent resident and a green card is immediately available; in other words, if the annual quota of family-based green cards given out per year has not been met yet.

There may also be some reasons why you might choose to file a U visa instead of a VAWA self-petition:

  • Depending on which grounds of inadmissibility apply in your case, it may be easier to get a waiver with a U visa than with a VAWA self-petition. Almost all grounds of inadmissibility can be waived with a U visa, but the VAWA waivers of inadmissibility are less generous.
  • U visa applicants may be able to include more family members than a VAWA self-petition. If you file a VAWA self-petition based on abuse by your adult U.S. citizen son or daughter, you cannot include any family members at all. Spousal and child VAWA self-petitioners can include their unmarried children under 21 as derivatives, but they cannot include a spouse as is allowed in a U visa application. In addition, a U visa petitioner who is under 21 can include his/her parents and unmarried siblings under 18.

If your abusive partner forced you to perform sex work or labor in the U.S., you could qualify for both a T visa, which helps victims of human trafficking, and a U visa. You don’t have to be part of a major sex or labor trafficking ring to be a human trafficking victim. If you qualify for both, here are some reasons why you might choose to file for a T visa instead of a U visa:

  • It takes much less time to receive a T visa than a U visa. Since many less people apply for them, there are not long waiting lists within the government to grant them.
  • With a U visa, the law enforcement certification is required. With a T visa, the law enforcement agency endorsement can be helpful but is not required.
  • Trafficking victims with approved T visas are eligible for the same public benefits as refugees. These benefits are typically more generous than what U visa holders can receive. In addition, the federal government has a special assistance program for trafficking victims called the Trafficking Victims Assistance Program (TVAP), which can provide financial and case management support for victims of trafficking even before you file a T visa application.
  • If you are afraid that the trafficker could try to hurt your family members abroad because of your escape or cooperation with law enforcement, a T visa can better protect your family. The T visa allows you to include all of the same family members as you could with a U visa, plus your parents and unmarried siblings under 18, as well as any adult or minor children of your derivatives, such as grandchildren, no matter how old you are.

Before you file any papers with USCIS, you should discuss your options with an immigration lawyer with experience in U visas and T visas to determine what would be the best option in your case. To find help, please go the National Organizations - Immigration page or our Finding a Lawyer page. If your lawyer needs assistance, s/he can call ASISTA for help.

I got U visa status based on a crime committed against me by my spouse but now we have gotten back together. Can I apply for a U visa for my spouse?

You cannot apply for a U visa for the person who committed the U visa-qualifying crime against you. Even if s/he is your spouse or other relative, the person who committed the crime against you will not qualify for a U visa.1

1 8 CFR § 214.14(a)(iii)

If I receive public benefits for myself or for my child, can I still get a U visa?

Receiving public benefits for yourself or on behalf of your children will not affect your U visa application.1 U visa applicants are not required to show that they can financially support themselves, so it does not matter if you or your family members receive public benefits. However, you should only apply for public benefits that you or your family members are actually eligible for. If you lie in order to get public benefits, it could affect your U visa application and you could be criminally charged.

1 INA § 212(a)(4)(E)(ii)

T Visa for Trafficking Victims

The following information should not be considered as a legal opinion on specific facts or as a substitute for legal counsel. Circumstances around human trafficking and applying for a T visa are usually complicated and need a case-by-case analysis. Please consult an attorney who understands the unique issues surrounding human trafficking BEFORE submitting anything to USCIS. For more information about services for trafficked victims prior to obtaining T visa status, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or you can send a text to 233733, which corresponds with the letters BeFree on your phone.

Basic information and definitions

What is trafficking and how does it relate to T visas?

Trafficking is slavery in our midst. Human traffickers recruit or kidnap their victims and force them to provide sex (“sex trafficking”) or labor (“labor trafficking“)whether the victims want to or not.1 Traffickers often control victims so much that they can’t leave, sometimes through:

  • threats or violence against the victims’ family in the homeland;
  • threats or violence to the victims themselves;
  • taking the victims’ passport, identification, and money; or
  • physically locking the victims in the building where they are being held.

Traffickers often use victims’ social or economic status to lure them in and keep power over them.

A T visa allows trafficking victims to live and work legally in the United States for four years.2 After having T visa status for three years (or sooner if the trafficking investigation or prosecution is over) you may request “lawful permanent residence,” commonly called a “green card.”3 You must, however, apply before your T visa status runs out.4

1 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(T)(i)
2 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(c)(1)
3 INA § 245(l)(1)(A); 8 U.S.C. § 1255(l)(1)(A)
4 8 C.F.R. § 245.23(a)(2)(ii)

Will I be able to work legally with a T visa?

When U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gives a person T visa status, they also automatically send the trafficking victim an Employment Authorization Document (often referred to as a “work permit”).1 Once a person has a work permit, s/he can work legally in the U.S.

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(d)(11)

Will I be deported if my T visa application is denied?

If your T visa application is denied, USCIS may put you into immigration proceedings known as “removal” or deportation proceedings. The government began doing this in the summer of 2019.1 Since immigration judges do not have the power to give people T visa status, there may be no way to avoid deportation (removal). In the removal proceedings, you would have to try to explain to an immigration judge why you should not be deported but this can be very hard to do. For instance, you may be able to ask for VAWA cancellation of removal from an immigration judge, either because you have been here for ten years or more or because you or your child have been abused by your spouse who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.2 There are other requirements for these applications, however, and they may be very hard to win.

To avoid having your T visa application denied and ending up in removal proceedings, it is more important than ever that you file a good, complete T visa case to start with, including all of the forms and documentation that help to prove all four requirements. This is hard to do without help from an attorney with experience in trafficking cases. Use our Finding a Lawyerpage to find a lawyer in your state. You can also ask one of the national immigration organizations listed on our National Organizations - Immigration page to help find you a lawyer.

1 USCIS Policy Memorandum 602.0050.1
2 INA § 240A(b)(1), (b)(2)

How does USCIS determine if I am a victim of a "severe form of human trafficking"?

When deciding whether someone is a trafficking victim (known under the law as a victim of a “severe form of human trafficking”), the government looks at whether the traffickers used or threatened to use force, coercion, or fraud to control the victim. Here are some examples of what this means: Traffickers may physically take people and force them to provide sex or labor they don’t want to do (“force,” which includes abduction); they may persuade someone to provide sex or labor they don’t want to do because they threaten them or people they care about (“coercion”); or they may promise freedom and legal work but in reality force them to provide sex or work against their will (“fraud,” which includes deception).

Many traffickers keep their victims working by threatening to hurt or punish them. The threat could be made to the victim directly or actions can be taken against another trafficking victim as a warning of what could happen. For example, a trafficker may rape a fellow worker to show that “this is what will happen to you if you don’t do what I want.” Traffickers may also make threats to harm the victim’s family members and loved ones, such as threatening to send someone to the victim’s homeland to rape, kill, or harm his/her family. Traffickers often threaten to call the police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to get victims who challenge them deported. Threats to report the victim to the police are known as “abuse of the legal process.” Keeping people in a trafficking situation this way is “involuntary servitude or slavery.” 1

For more information, you can go to the website of the government agency that decides T visas, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

1 22 U.S.C. § 7102(7)

What about my family? Can they get T-visa status along with mine?

The government may also give T visa status to close relatives of trafficking victims (“derivatives”). A trafficking victim over 21 can ask for T visa status for his/her spouse and children. A trafficking victim under 21 can ask for T visa status for his/her spouse, children, unmarried siblings, and parents too.1 Note: “Children” includes some but not all step-children. A step-child must have been under 18 years old at the time of the marriage between the parent and step-parent in order to be considered a “child” under immigration law.2

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(k)
2 INA § 101(b)(1)

What does it mean to have “continued presence”? Is it the same as having T visa status?

“Continued presence” is a way for law enforcement to ensure trafficking victims get the services they need as quickly as possible while allowing them to stay legally in the United States to help with a criminal investigation or prosecution.1 Continued presence is not the same as T visa status and it usually ends once the criminal case is over. Trafficking victims who wish to stay in the U.S. should work with an attorney to get T visa status while they have continued presence.

Only federal law enforcement can seek continued presence on your behalf. Therefore, you must either work with a federal officer or ask your local law enforcement or other agency to contact federal law enforcement for help getting continued presence.2 For information on contacting a federal law enforcement agency, see If I think I am a victim of severe human trafficking, how do I contact law enforcement for help?

1 22 U.S.C. § 7105(c)(3)(A)(i)
2 22 U.S.C. § 7105(c)(3)(C)

Contacting law enforcement

If I think I am a victim of severe human trafficking, how do I contact law enforcement for help?

To get T visa status, you must be willing to help law enforcement, unless you are under 21 years old or you get a trauma exception. Often times you may come into contact with law enforcement while you are still being victimized, in the course of the trafficking. For instance:

  • law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) may raid your workplace;
  • law enforcement may arrest you for prostitution or some other crime the trafficker forces you to participate in; or
  • a state or federal agency may send officers to investigate workplace violations or other issues in the workplace.

If you have come into contact with law enforcement in any of these ways, you could find a way to safely report your situation to them. Even if the agency you report it to can’t investigate, they should know which law enforcement agency can help you and should report your situation to them.

You do not have to wait for law enforcement to find you, however. If you can safely do so, you may report your situation to law enforcement or find someone in a safer situation to do it for you. You can report trafficking to:

There are other ways to report your situation too. The following agencies will help you figure out what can you do in your situation and refer you to law enforcement in as safe a way as possible:

Be aware that contacting law enforcement on your own may be risky. Some law enforcement agencies may get Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) involved. If that happens, you should ask to speak to an ICE Homeland Security Investigator specializing in human trafficking.

Since ICE’s main job is to identify, detain, and deport people who are not in the U.S. legally, you may end up detained or deported. Therefore, the safest way to report your situation is through an immigration lawyer who does human trafficking work. Use our Finding a Lawyer page to find a lawyer in your state. You can also ask one of the national immigration organization on our National Organizations - Immigration page to help find you a lawyer.

It is also important to know that a significant number of trafficking victims may report their situation to law enforcement but law enforcement may decide not to investigate their case for a variety of reasons. For example, law enforcement may believe that their resources are better spent on large trafficking rings rather than one individual’s case; or they may think other victims will be better witnesses in their case, etc. The fact that they don’t want or need your help doesn’t mean you aren’t a real victim of trafficking or that you shouldn’t get T visa status.

How do I prove that I contacted law enforcement?

Ask the law enforcement agency you contact to give you (or your lawyer) a “law enforcement agency (LEA) endorsement,” which is also known as a “declaration of law enforcement officer for victim of trafficking in persons,” on Form I-914 Supplement B. This is a statement from law enforcement saying that you have cooperated with their requests in investigating or prosecuting the case.

Getting the LEA endorsement can be very helpful to strengthen your T visa application. However, having an LEA endorsement does not guarantee that you will get T visa status. It’s possible that you can get T visa status if you show you tried to be helpful but still couldn’t get an endorsement from law enforcement.1

For more information on all four requirements that you will have to prove, go to What must I prove to be eligible for T visa status?

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(f)

Eligibility for T visa status

What must I prove to be eligible for T visa status?

To get a T visa, all of the following must be true:

  1. You are a victim of one of the two “severe forms of human trafficking,” sex trafficking or labor trafficking.
  2. You tried to be helpful to law enforcement officials investigating or prosecuting human trafficking crimes, such as the FBI, state or local police, district attorneys, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations. However, trafficking victims who are under 18 or too traumatized to cooperate with law enforcement may be excused from showing they helped in an investigation.
  3. You are in the United States, a U.S. territory, American Samoa, or at a port of entry to the United States, a U.S. territory, or American Samoa because of human trafficking.
  4. You would suffer “extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm” if you were removed (deported) or forced to leave.1

Note: These above requirements are defined and explained in more detail in the next section, Proving your case: T visa requirements.

1 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(T)(i); 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(b)

I think I am eligible for a T visa. Will I definitely get one if I apply?

Congress limited the number of T visas that USCIS is allowed to give each year to 5,000,1 but that limit is rarely reached. Most T visas are denied because the trafficking victim applicant:

  • did not provide enough information;
  • couldn’t show one of the requirements to get a T visa; or
  • didn’t file the right forms.

Working with an attorney with experience in human trafficking cases will help you avoid these problems, but even then USCIS may deny your case.

For more information on how to apply for a T-visa, see How do I apply for a T visa?

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(j)

If I have been the victim of trafficking, should I apply for VAWA or for a T visa?

If you were forced you to perform sex work or labor in the U.S., you could qualify for both a T visa, which helps victims of human trafficking, and a VAWA self-petition if you were married to your trafficker or your trafficker was your parent who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, or if your trafficker was your adult U.S. citizen son or daughter. You don’t have to be part of a major sex or labor trafficking ring to be a human trafficking victim.

Here are some reasons why you may want to apply for a VAWA self-petition instead of a T visa:

  • USCIS takes about two years to decide a VAWA self-petition, but it can take anywhere from two to four years to decide a T visa.
  • Unless you get “continued presence,” you cannot get a work permit through the T visa until your application is approved. If you file an application for lawful permanent residence with your VAWA self-petition, you can get a work permit while the self-petition is pending.
  • T visas require that you go along with any reasonable requests for assistance from law enforcement in investigating or prosecuting the crime unless you were under 18 when you were trafficked or are too traumatized to help law enforcement. VAWA does not require that.
  • To qualify for a T visa, you must be a victim of trafficking. For VAWA, you must prove “battery or extreme cruelty,” which is a much broader term that includes many more types of abuse.
  • Unless you can get a letter from the Department of Justice to show that the investigation into your trafficking is closed or you were under 18 when you were trafficked, you must wait three years after your T visa is approved to file for lawful permanent residence. VAWA self-petitioners can be eligible for lawful permanent residence immediately when their self-petition is approved.

And here are some reasons why you may want to apply for a T visa instead of a VAWA self-petition:

  • If you were abused by your U.S. citizen child, you cannot include any derivatives in your VAWA self-petition. If you were abused by your spouse or parent, you can only include your unmarried children under 21 in your VAWA self-petition. The T visa could allow you to include more family members as derivatives.
  • Trafficking victims with approved T visas are eligible for the same public benefits as refugees. These benefits are typically more generous than what VAWA self-petitioners can receive. In addition, the federal government has a special assistance program for trafficking victims called the Trafficking Victims Assistance Program (TVAP), which can provide financial and case management support even before you file a T visa application.
  • Depending on which grounds of inadmissibility apply in your case, it may be easier to get a waiver with a T visa than with a VAWA self-petition. Almost all grounds of inadmissibility can be waived with a T visa, but the VAWA waivers of inadmissibility are less generous.

Before you file any papers with USCIS, you should discuss your options with an immigration lawyer with experience in VAWA and T visas to determine what would be the best option in your case. To find help, please go the National Organizations - Immigration page or our Finding a Lawyer page. If your lawyer needs assistance, s/he can call ASISTA for help.

Proving your case: T visa requirements

Requirement 1: You are or have been the victim of a "severe form of trafficking"

In the question called What must I prove to be eligible for a T-visa? we list four requirements that you have to meet. In this section, we explain the first requirement in detail.

Human traffickers recruit or kidnap their victims to provide sex or labor whether the victims want to or not, known as sex trafficking and labor trafficking. These are the two “severe forms” of trafficking recognized by the government.

Sex trafficking includes forcing people to participate in creating pornography, selling or buying women as mail-order brides, or forcing women or men to be prostitutes by providing sex in exchange for money or other valuable things. This can take place in many locations, including brothels, massage parlors, and family homes; for instance, a trafficker may force his spouse to prostitute herself to his friends.

Labor trafficking can be seen in many kinds of “workplaces.” For instance, domestic workers may be victims of trafficking if they are forced to work in someone’s home, as a maid, nanny, etc., when they do not want to. Labor trafficking may take place in many industries, including agriculture, processing plants, factories, janitorial and food services, nail salons, and more. Traffickers may even force trafficking victims to beg on the streets. 1

Labor and sex trafficking often involve what is called “debt bondage,” which is when are forced to work to “repay” a debt to the trafficker. However, you are never actually able to repay the debt because the trafficker says you “owe too much” or keeps adding on new “expenses.”2 For instance, traffickers typically “charge” victims for their transportation to the United States and for their food and lodging once they are here. The traffickers make sure they charge so much that their victims will never be able to repay them. 3 As long as you owe this debt, the trafficker will not let you go, which often means there is no end in sight to being forced to do work you do not want to do.

To understand how the government decides if you are, in fact, a victim of a severe form of human trafficking, go to How does USCIS determine if I am a victim of a “severe form of human trafficking?

1 National Human Trafficking Resource Center Fact Sheet
2 22 U.S.C. § 7102(7)
3 22 U.S.C. § 7102(8)

Requirement 2: You have cooperated with or are excused from cooperating with reasonable requests from legal authorities.

In the question called What must I prove to be eligible for a T-visa?, we list all of the requirements that you have to meet to be eligible to apply for a T-visa. In this section, we explain the second requirement in detail.

It is important to know that you do not need to prove this requirement if:

  • you are under 18. Minors do not have to cooperate with authorities although you can if you want to;1 or
  • you have suffered psychological or physical trauma, and are unable to cooperate with law enforcement because of that trauma. In this case, you may qualify for the “trauma exception” to this requirement.2

Everyone else must show that they at least tried to be helpful with any “reasonable requests” from law enforcement.3 Whether a request is “reasonable” depends on the particular situation. Things that will be considered include:

  • general law enforcement practices (what law enforcement usually does when catching and prosecuting criminals);
  • your experiences (what you were subjected to by the trafficker); and
  • your circumstances regarding fear, physical and mental trauma, and your age and maturity.4

For example, if law enforcement asks you to do something that puts your life in jeopardy, this could be seen as an unreasonable request. However, it is ultimately up to USCIS to decide if what law enforcement asked you to do is reasonable or not.

If you are working with law enforcement, the easiest way to fulfill this requirement is with the law enforcement endorsement. If, however, law enforcement has asked you to do something unreasonable, you can still meet this requirement if you show you were willing to provide other help.

Note: A significant number of trafficking victims may report their situation to law enforcement, but law enforcement may decide not to investigate the case for a variety of reasons. For example, law enforcement may believe that their resources are better spent on large trafficking rings rather than one individual’s case; or they may think other victims will be better witnesses in their case, etc. The fact that law enforcement doesn’t want or need your help doesn’t mean you aren’t a real victim of trafficking or that you shouldn’t get a T visa. USCIS recognizes this, and the law explains how you can still meet this requirement without a law enforcement endorsement. For example, a victim may be able to offer evidence such as trial transcripts, court documents, police reports, and other evidence if s/he can’t get a law enforcement endorsement.5 This is, however, another place where an experienced attorney can help you. S/he can help you contact law enforcement to offer your help, can “create a record” that you tried to be helpful, and pester law enforcement for a response, which the attorney will document in writing and share with USCIS.

To avoid USCIS denying your case and possibly putting you or your family members into immigration court proceedings, it is safer for you and your family to work with an attorney with experience in T visa cases. Use our Finding a Lawyer page to find a lawyer in your state. You can also ask one of the national immigration organization on our National Organizations - Immigration page to help find you a lawyer.

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(b)(3)(i)
2 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(T)(i)(III)(bb); 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(b)(3)(ii)
3 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(T)(i); 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(b)(3)
4 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(h)
5 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(f)(1)(iii)

Requirement 3: You are in the United States, a U.S. territory, American Samoa, or a port of entry of any of these because of human trafficking.

In the question called What must I prove to be eligible for a T visa?, we list all of the requirements that you have to meet to be eligible to apply for a T-visa. In this section, we explain the third requirement in detail.

You must prove that you came to the U.S. because of force, coercion, or fraud and you are now being forced to work or perform sex acts for money. If you came to the U.S. on your own and then sometime later you were forced or tricked into labor or prostitution, you may not meet this eligibility requirement.1 USCIS often denies T visas because victims can’t show they are here because of (“on account of”) the trafficking, so please talk to an immigration lawyer about your specific situation to be sure you can show you came to the U.S. because of human trafficking. You can find free and paid lawyers on our Finding a Lawyer page.

As long as you are here because you were trafficked to the U.S., you may be able to get T visa status even if you are no longer being forced to work or provide sex. This is especially true if you recently escaped or were released from the trafficking situation. If you escaped the trafficking a long time ago, you must show you are still in the United States because of the severe trafficking you experienced. For example, if you are frightened to leave the U.S. because the traffickers are threatening to hurt you in your homeland, you may be able to get T visa status even though you are no longer under their physical control. If USCIS believes you could have left the U.S., however, they may decide that you no longer qualify for a T visa.1

To avoid USCIS denying your case and possibly putting you or your family members into immigration court proceedings, it is safer for you and your family to work with an attorney with experience in T visa cases. See our Finding a Lawyer page for free and paid legal services.

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(g)

Requirement 4: You would suffer "extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm" if removed or forced to leave.

In the question called What must I prove to be eligible for a T visa?, we list all of the requirements that you have to meet to be eligible to apply for a T-visa. In this section, we explain the fourth requirement in detail.

USCIS has a particular set of things they look at to decide whether someone would suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm if sent back to their home country.1 Most trafficking victims would likely meet these factors since they are based on typical trafficking victims’ experience.

To show extreme hardship, it is not enough to just show that if you get sent back, you will suffer:

  1. economic harm, such as not having enough money to survive; or
  2. social harm, such as being considered not suitable for marriage or employment.1

You must show more than these two things. Generally, you will need to show that you will suffer serious physical or psychological harm if you get sent back. Having better job or social opportunities in the U.S. will not be a significant positive factor by itself.

When preparing your case, focus on how you can show the facts below:

  • the details (“nature and extent”) of the physical and psychological harm you experienced from the trafficking;
  • the support and medical care you need for these physical or psychological consequences of trafficking that are available in the U.S. but not in your home country;
  • your ongoing need for help from the U.S. civil and criminal court systems, such as your need to:
    • sue to get money to cover your medical expenses and compensate you for your suffering (“restitution”);
    • get protection from the traffickers; or
    • help with the prosecution of thee traffickers;
  • laws, social practices, and customs in your home country that will likely harm you because you were a victim of trafficking; for example, the traffickers are powerful in your home country; or you will be excluded, hated, or harmed because you helped hold the traffickers accountable by cooperating with law enforcement;
  • the likelihood that you will be re-trafficked if you go back and the inability or unwillingness of your home country to protect you from that;
  • the likelihood that the traffickers or those working with them will harm you if you go back, regardless of whether the home country’s government will try to protect you;
  • your safety will be threatened by civil unrest or armed conflict; and
  • how your age, maturity, or particular circumstances make it dangerous for you to go back. 1

As you can see, the list above mostly focuses on two things:

  1. What do you need in the U.S. to cope with being a victim of trafficking that you can’t get in your home country?
  2. What will happen if you go back to your home country?

If you have children who are also seeking T visas, it may be useful to also emphasize why they need ongoing support and care here that they cannot get in your home country.

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(i)

Applying for a T visa

After I apply for a T-visa, what are the first documents that I will receive?

When U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives your application, they will send you a receipt notice. Once USCIS has looked at your evidence and decided whether you qualify for T visa status, they will send a “notice” that they have approved or denied your case.1 If they give you T visa status, they will also give you a work authorization card.2

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(c)(3), (d)(8)
2 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(d)(11)

What needs to be included in my T visa application?

**Please note that reading this section is not enough to be sure you are filing everything you need. We strongly encourage you to find an attorney with experience working with trafficking victims to help you.***

The first step is to get a lawyer, if possible, with experience doing T visas. Next, you will fill out, with the attorney’s help, an “Application for T Nonimmigrant Status,” which is called Form I-914. You can find the necessary forms including the I-914 and I-914 Supplement B at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

Along with the completed Form I-914, you must send USCIS a personal statement describing how you were a victim of trafficking; and ​supporting evidence (“corroboration”) to show that you meet the eligibility requirements.1

You are also encouraged to submit a “Declaration of Law Enforcement Officer for Victim of Trafficking in Persons,” which is Form I-914 Supplement B. This form is also known as a law enforcement agency (LEA) endorsement.

In addition, there are other forms and T visa requirements that require an expert in immigration law to do correctly.

Note: Your personal statement and other documents must show that you are in the U.S. because of the trafficking. This means that you must show: (1) you are here in the U.S.; and (2) the circumstances of your entry. If you weren’t physically trafficked into the U.S., you must explain how the trafficking caused you to be here (the “because of” requirement). Some questions that USCIS will be looking for in your T visa application are:

  • If you had the chance to leave the U.S. already, why didn’t you?
  • What acts or threats or other circumstances related to the trafficking prevented you from leaving the U.S.?

All of your reasons must be related to the trafficking experience or threats and acts by the trafficker. For example, you may have been prevented from leaving due to trauma, injury, lack of resources, or because your travel documents were seized by the traffickers. If you did leave the U.S. and come back, your return to the U.S. must be because of ongoing victimization or a new incident of severe trafficking. If not, USCIS will deny your application.

What do I need to know about the personal statement and corroboration included in my application?

The personal statement is very important. It is the only opportunity you have to tell your story in your own words and for USCIS to hear your “voice.” Your attorney or a crime victim advocate can help you organize your story but it should be in your own words. If you can’t get a law enforcement endorsement, you must explain in your statement how you tried to be helpful and what response, if any, you got back from law enforcement. You should also use your statement to explain why you meet the other eligibility requirements, especially if you don’t have a lot of other documents to support your case.

Similarly, if you are seeing a mental health therapist or other counselor to deal with the consequences of the trafficking, a statement from that therapist or counselor may be very helpful. S/he can describe both the facts of the trafficking, as you told them to him/her, and how the trafficking affected you. You may not be able to, or may not want to, explain all of this again in your personal statement and so having the therapist or counselor to do that for you may be easier. Trafficking victims are often raped or tortured, and it is reasonable for victims to prefer to supply details of that experience through their therapist or counselor. The goal of the law is to help trafficking victims, not re-traumatize them.

Other evidence that may support your case (“corroboration”) includes any documents or evidence from medical, legal, or social service systems that supports your own story and shows that you meet the T visa requirements. USCIS likes evidence from other “systems” because those systems are assumed to have expertise in their areas. They will, however, look at evidence from other sources too, especially if you and your lawyer explain why you couldn’t get “systems” evidence and why this source (your counselor, for instance) is believable, trustworthy and knowledgeable.

What do I need to know about the law enforcement agency (LEA) endorsement included in my application?

Although it is not required, you are encouraged to submit a “Declaration of Law Enforcement Officer for Victim of Trafficking in Persons,” which is Form I-914 Supplement B. This form is also known as a law enforcement agency (LEA) endorsement. A federal, state, or local law enforcement authority can fill out a Form I-914 Supplement B. A completed Form I-914 Supplement B acts as proof that you:

  • are a victim of a severe form of trafficking; and
  • have complied with reasonable requests for assistance in the investigation or prosecution.1

If you were previously granted “continued presence status” as a survivor of human trafficking, you should include the documents you have showing that.2

Law enforcement may decide not to investigate a significant number of trafficking victims’ reports for a variety of reasons. If you can’t get a law enforcement endorsement, you must explain in your personal statement the details of your attempts to help law enforcement. Also you must submit any medical, legal, or social systems evidence of your attempts to cooperate.3 For instance, if you called a law enforcement agency and they took down a report, work with your lawyer to get a copy of that report, even if law enforcement did nothing with it afterwards.

1 See Instructions for Form I-914, “Application for T Nonimmigrant Status”
2 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(d)(3)(iii)
3 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(f)(1)(iii)

What do I need to know about the other forms and requirements included in my application?

There are other forms and T visa requirements that require an expert in immigration law to do correctly. It is easy to lose your case just because you didn’t know you had to send in a particular form, you didn’t understand the “lawyer-speak” questions on the forms you did send in, or you didn’t know that past behavior unrelated to your trafficking experience came under one of the “grounds of inadmissibility.” An experienced immigration lawyer will help you avoid these pitfalls and help you address all of these barriers before you file. Again, remember that reading this description of what you need to file is not enough to file a successful T visa application. To avoid USCIS denying your case and possibly putting you or your family members into immigration court proceedings, it is safer for you and your family to work with an attorney with experience in T visa cases.

To locate a local attorney, please visit our Finding a Lawyer page and enter your state. For national immigration organizations, go to our National Organizations - Immigration page.

How much does it cost to apply for a T visa? Can I get a fee waiver?

The basic application forms for victims of trafficking, which are called Form I-914, and Form I-914 Supplements A or B, are free. However, there are some significant fees for both trafficking victims and their family members who will be applying as derivatives. The biggest fees are:

  • $930 fee for the form required to overcome the general barriers to getting status (“grounds of inadmissibility”); and
  • $410 fee for each family member (derivative) applicant who wants work authorization.1

Note: These costs are accurate as of September 1, 2019.

Since USCIS sometimes changes its fees and forms, make sure that you and your lawyer double check that you have the latest information and are using the latest forms.

It’s possible that you can get a fee waiver so you don’t have to pay the fees. Whether USCIS will grant a fee waiver depends on the family’s economic circumstances. If USCIS decides not to waive the fee, they will deny the case unless the fee is paid in a short period of time.

1 USCIS website - Forms

When I apply for a T visa, can I include my family members?

If requested, the government may also give T-visas to close relatives of trafficking victims.1 If the trafficking victim is over 21, s/he can ask for T visa status for his/her:

  • spouse; and
  • children.2

If the trafficking victim is under 21, s/he can ask for T visa status for his/her:

  • parents;
  • unmarried sisters and brothers under 18; and
  • spouse; and
  • children.

Under immigration law, “children” includes step-children who were under 18 years old at the time of the marriage between the parent and step-parent.3

Unlike the main T visa applicant (“principal applicant”), family members must ask for and pay for work authorization; they do not get it automatically when USCIS gives them T visa status.4 There is a hefty fee for this application, although fee “waivers” are available. There also are separate forms for family member (“derivative”) T visa applications and they must meet eligibility requirements themselves.5 For instance, like all T visa applicants, family members may have to explain why USCIS should give them a T visa status even if they committed prior acts that Congress has said are barriers to getting status in the U.S. (“grounds of inadmissibility”). Overcoming these grounds of inadmissibility is complicated and very difficult to do without help from an attorney with experience in immigration law.

To avoid USCIS denying your case and possibly putting you or your family members into immigration court proceedings, it is important to work with an attorney with experience in T visa cases. You can go to our Finding a Lawyer page to find a lawyer in your state. You can also ask one of the national immigration organizations on our National Organizations - Immigration page to help find you a lawyer.

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(k)(1)
2 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(k)(1)(i)
3 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(k)(1)(ii); INA § 101(b)(1)
4 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(k)(10)
5 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(k)(2)

Do I need a lawyer to apply for a T visa or can I find the forms online?

You can download the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services application forms from the USCIS website. However, we strongly encourage you to contact an immigration attorney to assist you in completing and submitting an application for a T-visa to the USCIS.

It is very important that you work with an attorney (or initially with an advocate) familiar with T visas. The forms and laws are confusing and you may make a mistake or leave something out that results in USCIS denying your application.

It is important to know that starting in the summer of 2019, USCIS started putting some denied T visa applicants into immigration proceedings (known as “removal” or deportation proceedings). Immigration judges have no power to give people T visa status, so once you are in removal proceedings, you may be deported quickly, especially if you don’t have an attorney with experience in immigration law and human trafficking. Because of the risks of being deported if your T visa application is denied, it is more important than ever that you contact an immigration attorney before filing an application. To find an immigration attorney, see our Immigration listings under National Organizations and / or our Finding a Lawyer page for a lawyer near you.

Where do I send my T visa application?

According to the Instructions for Form I-914, you can send your T-visa application to:

USCIS
Vermont Service Center
ATTN: VAWA / T-Visa Unit
75 Lower Welden St.
Saint Albans, Vermont 05479-0001

Again, we strongly suggest that it is your lawyer, not you, sending in your application for all of the reasons mentioned throughout this section. In addition, USCIS cannot communicate with you, the trafficking victim, directly. They will only speak to your legal representative.

After you have T visa status

How long does my T visa status last and what happens when it expires?

T visa status lasts for four years.1 You must leave the United States at the end of the four years unless:

  • a law enforcement authority certifies that an extended stay is necessary for an ongoing investigation;
  • you show “exceptional circumstances” justifying a longer stay; or
  • you have applied to become a legal permanent resident (to get your “green card”).2

For more information, see Now that I have my T-visa, can I apply for permanent resident status?

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(c)(1)
2 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(l)

I have T visa status. Can I work legally in the U.S.?

If the government gives you T visa status, you are automatically granted an employment authorization document (EAD) and you can legally work in the U.S. You do not need to fill out separate paperwork to get employment authorization; your T-visa application also acts as an application for employment authorization.1

If you asking for your family members (“derivatives”) to also get T visa status, work authorization does not come automatically with derivative T visa status. They will have to ask for work authorization and pay a fee for each family member’s work authorization.2 See How much does it cost to apply for a T visa? Can I get a fee waiver? for information about the fees.

1 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(d)(11)
2 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(k)(10)

Can I travel outside the U.S. after my T visa status is approved?

It is extremely important that you talk to an immigration lawyer with experience in T visas before traveling. Here are some problems with traveling:

  1. Even if USCIS approved your T visa application, you cannot come back into the US unless and until you go to a consulate to get an actual “T visa” to re-enter the U.S. You do not automatically get an actual T visa (needed for traveling) when you are approved for T-visa status.1
  2. If you come back into the U.S. with a different kind of visa, such as a visitor’s visa, after being granted T visa status, or if you come in without permission, USCIS may take away your T visa status. This may happen because the consulates are not sufficiently trained on T visas and may delay giving you a T visa or may give you bad advice and information.1
  3. Being outside the U.S. for more than 90 days at a time, or more than 180 days in combined trips, may prevent you from getting lawful permanent residence. This is the “continuous physical presence” requirement for T lawful permanent residence status.2 See Now that I have T visa status, can I apply for permanent resident status? for more information.
  4. If you leave the U.S. and then return, you may trigger new immigration law barriers (“grounds of inadmissibility”) that you did not need to deal with when you applied for T-visa status.3 If you leave the U.S., you should have your lawyer’s contact information in case you can’t get back into the U.S. without filing new forms. Your attorney could contact a national organization that is familiar with T-visas such as ASISTA for help getting these forms approved quickly.
  5. If you have T visa status and you already submitted an application for lawful permanent residence that is still pending, then you will need to request permission, called “advance parole,” before leaving the United States. If you do not request advance parole before leaving the U.S., USCIS will assume you have dropped your lawful permanent residence application and deny it.4

For all of these reasons, it is extremely important that you talk to an immigration lawyer with experience in T visas before traveling. An immigration attorney with experience in T visas should be able to determine if any of these risks apply to you. To find an immigration lawyer, visit our National Organizations - Immigration page and/or our Finding a Lawyer page.

1 See the Visas for Victims of Human Trafficking page from the U.S. Dept. of State
2 8 C.F.R. § 245.23(a)(3); See USCIS website, Instructions for I-485, Supplement E
3 INA § 212(a)(9)(B) & (C)
4 See 8 C.F.R. § 245.23(j); see Form I-131 and Instructions

Now that I have T visa status, can I apply for permanent resident status?

Someone granted T visa status may apply for permanent residence if s/he:

  1. has been in the United States for whichever amount of time is shorter:
    • a continuous period of at least three years after getting T visa status; or
    • a continuous period during the investigation or prosecution of a criminal case against the traffickers;
  2. has been a person of “good moral character” since first being granted T visa status;
  3. has complied with law enforcement’s reasonable requests since first being granted T visa status or would suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm if s/he were removed from the United States; and
  4. has not committed acts that trigger immigration law barriers to status (“grounds of inadmissibility.”)1

To apply for permanent residence, which is known as “adjusting your status,” you must file Form I-485, available at the USCIS website here.

Note: “Good moral character” is defined by a list of certain behaviors. The law spells out acts and crimes that, if committed, could prevent an immigrant from getting many kinds of lawful status, including lawful permanent residence for those with T visa status and naturalizing to become a U.S. citizen. The most common barriers to showing good moral character are based in criminal behavior.2 A lawyer may be able to rely on prior decisions (known as “case law”) by the immigration and federal courts to overcome these barriers. This is, again, an area that requires attention from an experienced immigration lawyer. To find an immigration lawyer, visit our National Organizations - Immigration page and/or our Finding a Lawyer page.

1 8 C.F.R. § 245.23
2 INA § 101(f)

What specific federally-funded benefits are available to me?

Once you have obtained certification related to continued presence or approved T visa status, or a letter of eligibility if you are under 18 you may receive benefits from any federal program or federally-funded state program. Possible benefits you may be eligible for appear below. To apply for any of these benefits, be sure to bring your certification or letter of eligibility, with you. (The service provider will verify your certification or eligibility letter by calling the Trafficking Victim Verification line at (866) 401-5510.)

Before seeking any of these federal benefits, however, you should make sure to first consult with your attorney or advocate so that they can check that the agency you approach won’t turn you away or call ICE to detain you.

1. Financial Help
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
– TANF provides assistance and work opportunities to needy families with children under 18 years of age. State agencies implement the program. Apply through your local social services agency.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as “SNAP” or food stamps) – You use food stamps like cash to pay for food at most grocery stores. Apply through your local Social Security office. Here you can find your closest Social Security office.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) – WIC provides nutrition assistance and education to pregnant women and families with children under five years of age. You can use WIC checks to purchase certain types of food and infant formula. You are automatically eligible for WIC if you are eligible for TANF, food stamps, or Medicaid.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – SSI provides benefits for people who are blind, have severe disabilities, or are at least 65 years old and have limited income and resources. Apply through your local Social Security office. Here you can find your closest Social Security office.

Refugee Cash and Medical Assistance (RCA & RMA) – If you are ineligible for TANF, SSI, and Medicaid, you may be eligible for RCA and RMA, which provide cash and medical assistance for the first eight months following certification or eligibility.

Matching Grant Program – Volunteer Agencies (called VOLAGs) administer the Matching Grant Program as an alternative to refugee cash assistance. It provides employment services, living assistance (including food or food subsidies, housing assistance, and transportation), and cash allowance.

2. Health Care
Torture Treatment Program – HHS-funded social, legal, health, and psychological services for victims of torture. Here you can find survivor resources.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) – SCHIP (also called CHIP) is a public health insurance program available to low-income, uninsured children under 18 years of age who do not qualify for Medicaid. Because state agencies administer the program, you will need to contact your state’s local social services agency for more information. Note: There is a five-year waiting period after receiving T visa status before trafficking victims can access SCHIP.1

Medicaid – Medicaid is a government-funded health insurance program for people with low income and limited resources. Because state agencies administer the program, you will need to contact your state’s local social services agency for more information. Note: There is a five-year waiting period after receiving T visa status before trafficking victims can access Medicaid.1

3. Social Services
Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program – This program provides resettlement and foster care services for unaccompanied minor refugees and trafficking victims. For more information, click here.

4. Employment
One-Stop Career Center System
- If you are looking for employment, Career One-Stop may be able to assist you. Local centers provide information and assistance for finding employment and obtaining education and training. To locate a One-Stop career service center near you, click here.

Job Corps – The Department of Labor oversees this free job training and education program for youths between the ages of 16 and 24. Here you can learn more about Job Corps.

5. Housing
Certified victims of human trafficking may be eligible for public housing assistance. Your local social services agency may be able to assist you in locating the proper public housing authority.

6. Other
State-Specific Programs
– States may have additional programs for certified victims of human trafficking. Your local social services agency may be able to assist you in figuring out what may be available to you.

Note: The above information is adapted from the HHS’s Administration for Children and Families Victim Assistance Fact Sheet. The fact sheet is also available in the following languages:

You can find additional information in HHS’s Resource Guide. In addition, the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project created a “map” where you can look up each type of benefit to see if an immigrant is eligible for that particular benefit in a particular state. The map includes cash assistance (TANF), child care, housing, driver’s licenses, and more. You can access this map feature on the NIWAP website. Also, they offer this information about all of the benefits that an immigrant can qualify for in every state displayed in a state-by-state list.

1 U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

What steps do I need to take to get federal benefits that I am entitled to?

If you are an adult victim of human trafficking (18 years of age and over), you can get “certified” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be eligible for certain federally-funded benefits.1

“Certification” is available to victims of human trafficking (as defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act) who are willing to assist law enforcement in the prosecution of trafficking crimes and either:

  1. have completed a bona fide application for a T-visa; or
  2. have received continued presence status from the Department of Homeland Security.2 See What does it mean to have “continued presence”? Is it the same as having T visa status? for more information.

Child victims are automatically eligible for benefits once the HHS receives proof that the child is a victim of human trafficking; they do not have to prove either of the two requirements above. The HHS will then provide the child victim or the child victim’s representative with a “letter of eligibility,” which can be used to prove to social service providers that the child is eligible for benefits.3

If you have not yet been certified by the HHS (but you have reported the trafficking crime), you may still be eligible for certain federally-funded services and benefits including crisis counseling and short term shelter or housing assistance. To locate service providers for uncertified victims of human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or you can send a text to 233733, which corresponds with the letters BeFree on your phone.

1 22 U.S.C. § 7105(b)(1)
2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Trafficking in Persons, Certification Letters
3 22 U.S.C. § 7105(b)(1)(C)(ii)(l); Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Victim Assistance Fact Sheet

Additional information and where to get help

Where can I find more information on T visas?

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website provides information, instructions, and forms for T-visa applicants. Here you can view the USCIS T-visa page.

Where can I find services and help for victims of trafficking?

For services and help, please consider contacting the following resources:

  • The Office for Victims of Crime (“OVC”) website provides an extensive list of resources for victims of human trafficking. To visit the OVC website and see those resources, click here. To see a list of OVC resources by state, click here.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement provides information and links to federal resources for victims of human trafficking.
  • The National Human Trafficking Resource Center is a non-government organization that assists victims of human trafficking. If you are not ready to contact government authorities, but would like more information about resources available to trafficking victims, call their hotline at: 1-888-373-7888 or you can send a text to 233733, which corresponds with the letters BeFree on your phone.

Asylum

If you are afraid to return to your home country due to a fear of persecution (mistreatment/abuse), you may be eligible for asylum, which would allow you to stay in the U.S. legally.

Basic information

What is asylum?

Asylum is for people who are afraid to return to their home countries. It is like refugee status except that you apply from inside the U.S. as opposed to filing from your country of origin. It is not an easy or fast process, and it is not something you should do without help from a lawyer who knows how to do asylum cases. If you fear going to your home country because of domestic violence or sexual assault that you experienced there, make sure your attorney has experience applying for asylum for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors; not all immigration attorneys do.1

The biggest problem for getting asylum status for those who experienced domestic or sexual violence in other countries is that the law was created before violence against women was generally recognized as problems or crimes. Although our government has granted asylum on the basis of domestic or sexual violence that was committed in another country, it is still very difficult to win this type of asylum claim because of the way the law was written.

Because asylum is complicated and the rules change a lot, this section will not tell you how you can win an asylum case; it will only outline some of the main things the government says you must show.

1 The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies is a good resource for lawyers, domestic and sexual violence advocates, and asylum-seekers who have questions regarding asylum based on domestic or sexual violence.

Who qualifies for asylum? Will being a victim of domestic or sexual violence qualify me?

To be eligible for asylum, you must show that:

  1. you were or will be “persecuted” in your home country; and
  2. at least one central reason for the persecution is your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.1

It is not enough to just prove that you were the victim of domestic or sexual violence. You also must show that whoever abused you did it because of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or because you are in a group that is targeted for persecution (a “particular social group”). For example, perhaps you can show that the abuser justified his/her actions because of your race, religion, nationality, or political opinion.

In many domestic violence cases, it is difficult to show that the abuser harmed you because of your race, religion, nationality, or political opinion. Instead, many domestic violence cases are based on harm on account of your membership in a particular social group. Each case is different and depends on the facts, but some domestic violence victims may be able to show that they were abused because they were married to the abuser and could not leave the relationship or because they are women.2

Domestic violence asylum claims are very complicated and difficult to win without an attorney. To find a list of legal resources in your area, please see Finding a Lawyer and select your state or see our National Organizations Immigration page.

    1 INA § 208(b)(1)(B)(i); 8 USC § 1158(b)(1)(B)(i)
    2 See, e.g., Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 388 (BIA 2014); De Pena-Paniagua v. Barr, 957 F.3d 88 (1st Cir. 2020)

    What does "persecution" mean? How do I prove that the government was unable or unwilling to protect me from persecution?

    Proving that you did or likely will suffer from persecution is a key element in proving asylum. However, the laws do not specifically define the term “persecution.” In past asylum court cases, it has been defined as causing (inflicting) suffering or harm upon those who differ in race, religion, or political opinion, in a way regarded as offensive.1

    Another important part of proving your asylum claim is proving that the source of the persecution is the government, a quasi-official group, or a person or group that the government is unwilling or unable to control.2

    If you are claiming asylum based on domestic or sexual violence, in order to show that your home country’s government is unable or unwilling to protect you, here are some points that you should discuss with your attorney and your domestic or sexual violence advocate:

    • Did you report the domestic or sexual violence to the authorities in your home country?
      • If you did report the abuse, what happened? What did the authorities do?
        • If you reported the domestic or sexual violence, and the authorities did try to help you but the abuser still threatened or harmed you, then this could be an example of your government being “unable” to protect you.
        • If you reported the domestic or sexual violence, and the authorities did not even try to help you, then this could be an example of your government being “unwilling” to help you.
      • If you didn’t report the abuse to the authorities, why not?
        • Sometimes it’s pointless or dangerous to report to authorities. If it’s well-known that they will do nothing for domestic or sexual violence survivors, for example, then the argument can be made that it’s pointless to report it and you should not have to do it.
        • Sometimes reporting abuse to authorities is not just pointless, it’s dangerous. For example, if it’s well-known that the authorities will tell abusers and rapists about the people who report them, it’s dangerous. Especially if the person who abused you is a powerful person in your community or works for the authorities, it may be very dangerous to report the domestic or sexual violence.
    • If it was pointless or dangerous to report abuse to your local authorities, you can work with your attorney and advocate to show that this is because your government can’t or won’t protect you against the person who abused you.

    1 See, for example, Guo v. Sessions, 897 F.3d 1208 (9th Cir. 2018)
    2 See, for example, Avetova-Elisseva v. I.N.S., 213 F.3d 1192 (9th Cir. 2000)

    Is being a woman enough to prove I am part of a "particular social group?"

    In order to prove membership in a “particular social group,” it is important to know that our asylum system does not yet acknowledge “women” and “gender” as “social groups.” Instead, victims of abuse must show they are in a smaller “social group” than just women; but our asylum system keeps changing its mind on what people must show to be in a “social group.” This makes it very hard to do an asylum application on your own, and it is one reason why you must work with an attorney who is up-to-date on the latest government policies and federal cases. It is also why you may want to talk to your lawyer about whether you were abused or raped because of, for instance, your “political opinion” that the abuser did not have the right to control you. Even if you can show this, however, you will have to show:

    • how you made that opinion clear;
    • that this is why you were abused or sexually assaulted; and
    • that your government would not or could not protect you. Note: This last requirement is an example of a requirement that was added by our government and is not in the statute.

    If I plan on coming into the U.S. by crossing the border, how do I ask for asylum?

    In order to ensure that people fleeing persecution who arrive at the U.S. border are not immediately turned away, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are supposed to ask people without a valid visa or immigration status if they fear persecution in their homeland. If you say “yes,” you should get what is called a credible fear interview. During the credible fear interview, you will be asked a series of questions about what fear you have related to returning to your homeland. If you “pass” the credible fear interview, which means that the officer finds that there is a “significant possibility” of winning on a claim for asylum, then you should receive a Notice to Appear (NTA) in immigration court and will be placed in removal proceedings before a judge where you can ask the immigration judge for asylum and try to prove your case.

    However, the government frequently makes changes to this system. Do not assume that anyone in our immigration system will ever ask you if you fear going back to your home country. Instead, be ready to say it for yourself, more than once if necessary, and say why you fear being sent back to your home country. Ideally, you should have the name and phone number of a lawyer handy who you met prior to arriving in the U.S. – if so, ask to call your lawyer or tell the officers to call your lawyer if they won’t let you call her or him.

    You can read more information about how to pass a credible fear interview on the Immigration Equality website.

    The asylum process

    How do I apply for asylum? How long after arriving in the U.S. do I have to apply?

      If you are not in immigration detention or involved in an immigration court proceeding, you can file your application at a local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum office. This is known as an affirmative asylum process.

      If you are in immigration detention or involved in an immigration court proceeding, you can ask the immigration judge for asylum as a defense against removal from the U.S. This is known as a defensive asylum process.1

      Either way, you must apply for asylum within one year of the date of your last arrival in the U.S. However, there can be an exception to the one-year filing deadline if you can show that:

      1. there are:
        • “changed” circumstances that materially affect your eligibility for asylum; or
        • “extraordinary” circumstances relating to the delay in filing; and
      2. you filed within a reasonable amount of time given those circumstances.2

      In order to know what circumstances can be considered “changed” or “extraordinary,” it’s important to work with an asylum lawyer who is up-to-date on the latest policies and court cases. To find a list of legal resources in your area, please see Finding a Lawyer and select your state or see our National Organizations Immigration page.

      1 USCIS website
      2 8 CFR § 208.4(a)(2); INA § 208(a)(2)(B), (a)(2)(D); 8 USC § 1158(a)(2)(B),(a)(2)(D)

      Can I request asylum if I am already in removal proceedings?

      How important is it to have an attorney help me?

      It is very important to have a knowledgeable immigration lawyer help you throughout the asylum application and court process. There are ways to see a lawyer even if you cannot afford one, and you should always try to contact a lawyer before applying to the USCIS. Your conversation with the attorney will be confidential, and s/he cannot report you to the USCIS.

      If you cannot afford to pay an attorney, you may qualify for free or low-cost legal aid. You will see a list of legal services offices on the Finding a Lawyer page for your state. In addition, please go to our National Organizations Immigration page. In many states, Catholic Charities may be able to provide you with legal assistance relating to immigration. Go to the Catholic Charities website and search for the contact information in your state. You do not have to be Catholic to receive their assistance.

      Will I get an interpreter if I don’t speak English?

      If you are applying for asylum at an asylum office, you will have to bring your own interpreter to the asylum interview. The government will not provide one for you. The interpreter cannot be your lawyer or representative, or a witness who will be testifying on your behalf, and must be at least 18 years old.

      If you are requesting asylum from an immigration court judge as a defense to removal proceedings, the government will provide an interpreter for you at the asylum hearing and in all court proceedings.1

      1 See USCIS website

      What happens if they deny my asylum request?

      If you apply for asylum at an asylum office and they say “no,” they will probably put you into removal proceedings and you will have to appear in immigration court. At that time, you can ask again for asylum from the immigration judge. If you ask for asylum as part of your defense in removal proceedings, and the immigration judge says that you do not qualify, you can appeal that decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which is the highest court in our immigration court system. If the BIA denies your request, you can appeal to a federal court. If you are still denied asylum by federal court – or if you do not file an appeal when the immigration judge denies your case – you will probably be deported. It is almost impossible to do any of this successfully without an attorney with experience in asylum.

      To find a list of legal resources in your area, please see Finding a Lawyer and select your state or see our National Organizations Immigration page.

      Benefits of getting asylum

      What are the benefits of asylum status?

      If your asylum application is approved, you will be allowed to live and work legally in the U.S.1 You will be able to apply for lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) after you have been in asylum status in the U.S. for one year.2 Unfortunately, you will not qualify for public benefits.

      Note: When you apply for a green card (permanent residence), your spouse and children are also eligible to apply for a green card if they were admitted to the United States as asylees following your grant of asylum, or if they were already in the U.S. with you and were included in your grant of asylum.3

      For a more complete list of benefits, you can go to the USCIS website’s “Benefits and Responsibilities of Asylees” page.

      1USCIS website
      2 INA § 209(b); 8 USC § 1159(b); 8 CFR § 209.2(a)(1)(ii)
      3 USCIS website

      Can my family members get asylum?

      If you are granted asylum, you may apply for derivative asylum status for your spouse and/or unmarried minor children under age 21.1 “Derivative asylum status” means that your spouse and/or or children may be granted asylum status based on your own asylum status. You cannot apply for derivative asylum status for any other family members, such as your parents or siblings.

      Unmarried minor children (under the age of 21) could include:

      • a stepchild who became your stepchild before s/he turned 18; and
      • an adopted child who was adopted before the age of 16.2

      To meet the definition of spouse, you need to be legally married according to your home country’s law. However, the U.S. will not recognize some legal marriages, even if they are considered legal marriages in your home country (for example, polygamous marriages.).

      In order to request asylum status for your family, you need to file the proper paperwork within the first two years of being granted asylum status. You may be able to sponsor your family members whether they are in the U.S. or in your home country.3 As always, before filing any forms, we suggest talking to an immigration attorney. You can find an attorney by going to our Finding a Lawyer page or our National Organizations Immigration page.

      1 8 CFR § 208.21(a); INA § 208(b)(3); 8 USC § 1158(b)(3)
      2 See 8 CFR § 208.21(b); INA § 101(b)(1)(B), (b)(1)(E)
      3 8 CFR § 208.21(c) & (d)

      When and how can I become a lawful permanent resident if I have asylum status?

      If you have asylum status, you may apply for lawful permanent residence one year after being granted asylum. You will have to show that:

      • you been in the U.S. for at least one year; and
      • you are not prevented from becoming a lawful permanent resident due to the “grounds of inadmissibility.”1Note: If the grounds of inadmissibility do apply to you, you can ask the government to “waive” them for humanitarian purposes, to assure family unity, or if it’s in “the public interest.”2 In other words, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will consider the pros and cons of your application to decide whether you should get lawful permanent residence despite the fact that you one or more of the grounds of inadmissibility apply to you.

      You must work with an immigration attorney to figure out whether the special “inadmissibility ground” barriers apply to you. Some of the inadmissibility rules do not apply to asylum applicants2 but the rules are very complicated and your lawyer will need to know what the immigration and federal courts have said about them to answer the government’s questions correctly. Plus, it is easy to file the wrong forms, fill them out wrong, or forget to include something you must include. To find a list of legal resources in your area, please see Finding a Lawyer and select your state or see our National Organizations - Immigration page.

      1 INA § 209(b)(5); 8 USC § 1159(b)(5)
      2 INA § 209(c); 8 USC § 1159(c)

      Refugee Status

      If you are a not a U.S. citizen, are living outside of the U.S., and you are afraid to return to your home country due to a fear of mistreatment or abuse (persecution), you may qualify for refugee status, which would allow you to come to the U.S. legally. You can only apply for and get refugee status from outside of the U.S.

      Basic information

      Am I eligible for refugee status? Where would I apply?

      You may be eligible for refugee status if all of the following apply:

      • you are outside of your country of nationality;
      • you are outside of the U.S.;
      • you fear persecution in your home country based on your:
        • race;
        • religion;
        • nationality;
        • political opinion; or
        • membership in a “particular social group;” and
      • you are not barred from getting status by the “grounds of inadmissibility” or you qualify for a waiver that would excuse (“waive”) any “inadmissibility” barriers you face.1

      Those who fear persecution must get a referral from the United States Refugee Assistance Program (USRAP), which is usually done by a US embassy abroad, by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working with refugees, or by the office of the United National High Commissioner on Refugees, often for those in refugee “camps.” You will receive help filling out your application and be interviewed, while abroad, by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer. The officer will determine whether or not you are eligible for refugee resettlement in the U.S.2

      If you get refugee status, the agency working with you will help you fill out a form that allows you to enter the U.S. You will, again, be “inspected” by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) when you enter the U.S. A Resettlement Support Center will help you and your family get accustomed to the U.S.

      1 INA § 101(a)(42)(A); 8 USC § 1101(a)(42)(A); see INA § 212
      2 See the USCIS website

      Can I apply for refugee status while I am in the U.S.?

      You have to apply for refugee status before coming to the U.S. If you are already in the U.S. and you fear going back to your home country, you would apply for asylum instead. Go to our Asylum page for more information.

      What are "grounds of inadmissibility"?

      Most people who want to enter the U.S. or get legal status in the U.S. must show they are not barred by a long set of rules called the “grounds of inadmissibility.”1 This is also true for refugees when they apply for refugee status, when they are “inspected” by Customs and Border Patrol to come into the U.S. as a refugee, and when they apply for lawful permanent residence. All of the rules don’t apply to refugees, however.2 These rules are very complicated and your lawyer will need to know what the immigration courts and federal courts have said about them to answer the government’s questions correctly.

      If you have a problem with one of the “grounds” on the list, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will consider the pros and cons of your application to decide whether or not to excuse (“waive”) the inadmissibility ground by granting you a waiver.3 If the USCIS denies you a waiver, they will deny your case and may put you into immigration proceedings, which may result in your deportation. This is one main reason you must work with an immigration lawyer or advocate who knows about refugee status and lawful permanent residence when applying.

      1 See INA § 212
      2 8 USC §§ 1157(c)(3); 1159(a)(2), (c)
      3 8 USC §§ 1157(c)(3); 1159(c)

      Benefits of getting refugee status

      What are the benefits of having refugee status?

      If your application is approved, you will be able to travel to the U.S. and enter the country legally. Also, with refugee status, you will be able to:

      • work legally in the U.S;1 and
      • apply for lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) after one year of being in refugee status in the U.S.2

      If you didn’t include your family in your refugee application, you can apply to bring your husband or wife and unmarried children under 21 to the U.S. within the first two years of entering the U.S. as a refugee.1 This can include step-children and adopted children, but the rules are complicated.3

      1 See USCIS website Refugees page
      2 8 CFR § 209.1
      3 See INA § 101(b); 8 USC § 1101(b)

      How can my family members benefit from my refugee status?

      When you ask for refugee status, you may also ask that some of your close family members get refugee status too as “derivatives.”1 You must do this within the first two years of being granted refugee status.2 You can include your wife or husband, and children who are unmarried and who were under 21 when you filed your application. Included in the definition of “children” are step-children and adopted children, but the rules are complicated.​3

      Your family members must show that the special barriers to status known as the “grounds of inadmissibility” do not apply to them, or you must ask that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “waive” any barriers that do apply to them.4

      In addition, when you file for lawful permanent residence after being in the U.S. as a refugee for one year, you can also apply for your family members to get lawful permanent residence.5

      1 INA § 207(c)(2); 8 USC § 1157(c)(2)
      2 See USCIS website
      3 INA § 101(b)(1)(E); 8 USC § 1101(b)
      4 INA § 207(c)(3); 8 USC § 1157(c)(3)
      5 See the USCIS website

      How can I apply for lawful permanent residence once I am a refugee?

      If you are in the U.S. in refugee status, you are required by law to apply for lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) one year after you came into the U.S. To get lawful permanent residence, both of the following must be true:

      • you have not lost your status and have been physically inside the U.S. for at least one year after you came in as a refugee; and
      • you are not barred from getting status by the “grounds of inadmissibility” or you ask USCIS to “waive” any “inadmissibility” barriers you face​.1

      It is easy to file the wrong forms, incomplete forms, or put the wrong information in the forms, so you should work with a lawyer who can help you to file the correct documents. To find a lawyer, please go to the Finding a Lawyer page and select your state or our National Organizations - Immigration page.

      1 See USCIS website’s Green Card for Refugees

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