September 30, 2018, is the current expiration date for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a law originally enacted in 1994 that increases protection for both men and women suffering from domestic and dating violence. In July, House Democrats introduced a measure to reauthorize VAWA, but then House lawmakers went on recess until September 4th, leaving very little time for reauthorization before VAWA’s expiration.
VAWA has provided more than 6 billion dollars in grant funding nationwide, leaving in limbo shelters and programs that protect victims of domestic violence. Historically, VAWA has had bipartisan support, but if neither the house nor the senate passes a bill to reauthorize it, funding will be cut. It is expected that the House will pass a short-term extension of the current law until December 7, 2018, however lawmakers are still nervous. VAWA was reauthorized with bipartisan support in 2000, 2005 and 2013, but the current House bill does not have the bipartisan support necessary to ensure a long-term reauthorization.
Immigrant victims of domestic violence who do not have lawful immigration status in the United States are in an even more vulnerable state because abusers that are U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents habitually use immigration status and the threat of deportation as a means to keep victims under their control in order to perpetuate domestic violence. Thus, VAWA includes provisions that protect immigrant victims of crimes. Luckily, such provisions are codified in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), and therefore, do not require reauthorization from Congress. Despite this fact, the current administration’s hard line on immigration coupled with headlines stating that VAWA is expiring keeps immigrant victims of crimes anxious.
The VAWA protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence allow for an undocumented battered spouse, child or parent of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident abuser to “self-petition” and essentially step into the role of the abusive spouse or parent for immigration purposes and submit a petition to immigration to change his or her legal status without the help of the abuser. This protection allows immigrant victims of crimes to break the cycle of abuse and seek safety for themselves and their children without fear of deportation. If approved, the self-petitioner is first placed on deferred action status and receives protection from deportation and work authorization. This VAWA deferred action status then opens the door for the Petitioner to apply for lawful permanent resident status (a green card) in the U.S. Even more importantly, the Petitioner’s minor children may also be included as derivatives on the VAWA petition. The abuser is not notified of the filing and the VAWA petitioner’s information is kept confidential.
Many people, including politicians, are skeptical of VAWA’s protections for immigrants stating that immigrants may easily lie about abuse with the sole purpose of obtaining a green card. As a practitioner who has worked in shelters and helped hundreds of abused immigrant women and men obtain lawful status through VAWA, I can attest to the fact that my clients’ scars, tears, custody battles and the psychological impact of domestic violence is real. I have personally witnessed clients transform from sad, even suicidal, victims to happy, productive members of society through the VAWA process, which allows them to come out of the shadows and obtain legal status.
Even given this, of course there may still be a liar or fraudster out there, and to that I always counter with this: a VAWA petition is an up-hill battle. They are frequently denied and it is the immigrant Petitioner’s burden to prove that he or she merits a grant of protection under VAWA. The application process from start to finish takes years and is virtually impossible to win without the help of an experienced immigration attorney.
To qualify as a VAWA self-petitioner, the immigrant applicant must prove the following: (1) that he or she resided in the U.S. with the abuser, (2) that he or she was subject to battery or extreme cruelty (for spousal abuse the battery or extreme cruelty must have occurred during the marriage), (3) that he or she entered into the marriage in good faith and not for an immigration benefit (for spousal abuse), (4) that he or she has not committed any crimes or immigration offenses that disqualify the petitioner from receiving an immigration benefit, and (5) that the self-petitioner is a person of good moral character.
To win a VAWA case, the Petitioner must submit documents such as shelter records, CPS records, police reports, protective orders, counseling records, psychological records and/or evaluations, and letters from friends, family, and witnesses to both the abuse and the good faith marriage. I always tell VAWA petitioners that we have to prove the bad and also the good because, on top of the evidence previously listed, the Petitioner must also submit photos, leases, bills, children’s birth and school records, joint bank account statements and whatever else he or she can gather up to prove the “good faith marriage” and “cohabitation” elements. Further, the Petitioner must also submit awards and certificates, criminal history reports and police clearances, taxes, and any other relevant document to prove the “good moral character” prong.
As you can see, gathering this type of evidence as well as re-living the trauma suffered as a victim of domestic violence is not for the feign of heart and the process itself naturally weeds out false claims of abuse.
Though the current expiration date of VAWA does not impact immigrant victims of crimes in their ability to file for immigration benefits, VAWA expiration does affect self-petitioners because if funding is cut for shelters and domestic violence programs, VAWA self-petitioners have nowhere to run to for help in breaking the cycle of domestic violence. Victims’ inability to leave a household ridden with domestic violence in turn puts everyone in the community in danger.