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:
- 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;
- 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;
- You are currently living abroad and the abuser abused you while you were in the United States; or
- 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.