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Immigration

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Updated: 
May 17, 2021

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?

Eventually you may be able to get lawful permanent residence (a “green card”), but you have to get through filing the VAWA self-petition first. Once your self-petition is approved, there are several factors that will determine when you can apply for lawful permanent residence. See If my self-petition is approved, when can I apply for lawful permanent residence (green card)? for more information.

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.

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)