Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Self-Petitions
Marriage-based immigration typically involves an invitation by the U.S. citizen or resident in the form of a petition filed with the immigration service. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 provides an important exception to this general rule for foreign citizens subjected to abuse. Under these laws, a self-petition may filed by an immigrant spouse who is determined to be “battered” or the victim of “extreme cruelty.” Historically foreign spouses have been at risk of being held captive by relationships to which their legal immigration status was tied, which Congress sought to remedy with the self-petition.
To qualify, the foreign national must be married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, as with the typical petitions discussed above. Following statutory amendments in 2000, self-petitions are available following divorce, so long as they are sought within two years of dissolution. The children of the abused spouse may also qualify. Similarly, the former spouse of a U.S. citizen or resident may qualify if her children suffered abuse from the citizen/resident (regardless of whether the foreign spouse was abused). The foreign spouse must demonstrate a legal marriage to the citizen/resident, but need not extensively document the bona fides of the relationship as is typically required in a marriage-based immigration case. With limited exception, self-petitions are available only to abused spouses living in the United States, and who entered lawfully.
The crux of a VAWA self-petition is typically demonstrating extreme cruelty by the U.S. citizen or resident. The term extreme cruelty is defined broadly and includes psychological rather than only physical abuse. The VAWA self-petitioning process follows a similar procedural outline to the marriage-based adjustment of status outlined above. The petitioner begins by filing a Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow or Special Immigrant. Following approval of the petition the self-petitioner files for adjustment of status to permanent resident, as with a typically marriage-based case.