There two special immigration laws that can be used to help victims of domestic violence obtain immigration papers. The first is the Violence Against Women Act and the second is the U visa program.
Violence Against Women Act
Although the first law is called the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), it applies to both women and men who have been victims of abusive marriages. The first requirement of the VAWA is that the applicant has been married to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder). This does not necessarily have to be a marriage that has a marriage certificate issued by the court. Some states, including Texas, recognize common law marriage, where two people live together, agree to be married, and tell others they are a married couple. The second requirement of VAWA is that the applicant have lived with the abusive spouse and that it be a good faith marriage. What does a good faith marriage mean? It means that the marriage was entered into because the people genuinely wanted to be married to each other, and not just because one person wanted to obtain immigration papers.
The third requirement of VAWA is that the abusive spouse subjected the applicant or the applicant’s child to “battery or extreme cruelty.” Physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse may all qualify as battery or extreme cruelty, depending on the circumstances. The applicant also has to have “good moral character” – this generally means that the applicant cannot have certain criminal convictions.
If the applicant is married to a U.S. citizen and the VAWA application is approved, the applicant is immediately eligible to apply for a permanent resident card (or green card). If the applicant is married to a permanent resident, there is a waiting list before applying for a permanent resident card.
The U visa program is for people who have been victims of certain violent crimes, which include domestic violence, sexual assault, and felonious assault. Additionally, a recent change to the law added “stalking” crimes to the list of crimes that may qualify a person for a U visa. Although U visas are available to many victims of crime, not just victims of domestic violence, they are also often used to help victims of domestic violence who may not be eligible for VAWA, either because they were not married to the abuser or because the abuser did not have any immigration documents.
The applicant for a U visa must show that he or she suffered substantial physical or emotional harm as a result of a crime that occurred in the United States. The applicant has to have assisted law enforcement agencies in investigating or prosecuting the crime by giving the law enforcement agency helpful information about the crime. This can include calling the police during an incident of domestic violence, going to an interview with the detective on the case, submitting to a medical exam, or testifying at the trial against the person who committed the crime. The applicant must get a law enforcement agency to sign a certification that the applicant was helpful. The police department, district attorney’s office, judge, or sometimes another agency like Child Protective Services, can sign the certification.
The U.S. government may only issue 10,000 U visas for each year. Right now, the government is receiving so many applications for U visas that it ran out of available visas within the first few months of the 2015 year. This means that the processing of U visas can be really delayed, compared to the quicker processing times for VAWA applications.
Once a U visa is approved, it is good for four years. After three years of living in the United States with a U visa, the individual can apply for a permanent resident card, or green card.