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Legal Information: Federal


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January 30, 2018

What is VAWA?

VAWA is the acronym for the Violence Against Women Act, which was passed by Congress in 1994. Among other things, VAWA created special provisions in United States immigration law to protect victims of abuse who are not citizens of the United States. In cases of domestic violence, US immigration law allows certain victims of abuse who are not citizens to obtain lawful status without having to rely on their abuser to petition.

Normally, if you are a spouse, child or parent of a US citizen (USC) or a spouse or child of a legal permanent resident (LPR) and you want to obtain lawful permanent resident status (commonly referred to as having a “green card”), the USC or LPR has to file a petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and may need to go with you to an interview with Immigration authorities.

Also, if your marriage is less than two years old when you obtain your LPR status, you would normally get what is called “conditional permanent residence,” (commonly known as a “conditional green card”). Your spouse would then normally need to file a joint petition with you to remove the “condition” so that you can obtain full lawful permanent residence.

However, in relationships where there is domestic violence, these requirements for the USC or LPR’s participation are often used by an abuser as a form of abuse, gaining power and control over the immigration status of the victim. Therefore, US immigration law allows certain noncitizen victims of abuse to get legal status on their own without involving the abuser to file anything for the victim.

What does USC mean? What does LPR mean?

Throughout this section, we will use the abbreviations USC and LPR. “USC” stands for US citizen. “LPR” stands for legal permanent resident. A legal permanent resident is also commonly referred to as someone who has a “green card” or who is a “green card holder.”

What is a derivative?

A derivative is a person who is not a citizen of the US that may be eligible to receive immigration status through the application for immigration status of another non-citizen who is the principal applicant. So, for example, an abused person applying for a VAWA self-petition may be able to apply for his/her children as derivatives on his/her application.

What do "inadmissibility grounds" mean?

Inadmissibility grounds are reasons why people cannot be “admitted” into the US (for example, having to do with certain criminal convictions, with committing different types of fraud, among others). Inadmissibility grounds, in other words, are reasons why you may not be able to receive an immigration benefit. An immigration attorney with experience in VAWA can tell you if you fall under one or more of the inadmissibility grounds, and also if there are exemptions or waivers (pardons) available to you.

Is a step-child considered to be a child for the purposes of VAWA?

Throughout these pages, we refer to the relationship between a child and a parent when it comes to eligibility for VAWA. It is important to know that under immigration law, a “child” includes:

  • a biological child;
  • an adopted child; or
  • a step-child.1

However, 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 the “child” under immigration law. An adopted child must have been adopted before the age of 16.1

1 INA §101(b)(1)

If I am a victim of abuse, are there protections available for me under VAWA?

There are three possible forms of relief under VAWA that have their own set of requirements:

1) VAWA self-petition

You may be eligible to “self-petition” for lawful permanent residence without the assistance of the abuser if you are abused by:

  • your US citizen (USC) or legal permanent resident (LPR) spouse (or if that spouse has abused your child);
  • your USC or LPR parent (including a step-parent); or
  • your USC adult son or daughter (not an LPR son or daughter).1

For more information on VAWA self-petitions, go to our VAWA self-petition page.

2) Battered spouse or child waiver
You may be able to apply for a “battered spouse or child waiver” if you have conditional legal permanent residence as a spouse (and in certain circumstances as a child) of a USC or LPR, and the USC or LPR has abused you.  With a battered spouse or child waiver, the abuser does not have to file the joint petition with you.2

For more information on battered spouse and child waivers, go to our Battered spouse or child waiver page.

3) 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.”3  However, because in order 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.

For more information, go to our VAWA cancellation of removal page.

Note: Because immigration procedures are so complex, we strongly suggest you consult with an immigration lawyer who has experience with VAWA.  Our Immigration/ International page lists organizations working on 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 you are a victim of domestic violence, but do not think that you qualify for immigration relief under VAWA, there may be other ways that you can obtain lawful immigration status in the United States.  For example, If you were not married to the abuser or the abuser was not a USC or LPR, you may still qualify for U nonimmigrant status - please see our U Visa Laws for Crime Victims page.  The best way to determine your eligibility is to discuss your personal situation with an immigration attorney with experience in VAWA.

1 INA § 204(a)(1)(A) & (B)
2 INA § 216(c)(4)(C)
3 INA § 240A(b)(2)