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What Resources Are Available to Immigrants Who Are Victims of Domestic Violence?

Intimate partner violence and domestic violence are unfortunate realities many face. There are, of course, avenues through which victims can escape and become survivors. Still, the path to independence and safety is not easy for anyone. However, that path, which is already unclear, is much more so for victims who are immigrants.

That is an issue for many reasons. Intimate partner violence and domestic violence are seen at much higher rates among immigrant communities — almost three times as much as the national average. Keep in mind that nearly 23% of women in the US face domestic violence already. Abuse rates among immigrant women are as high as 49.8%. That rate increases when they are married to permanent residents and increases again when married to US citizens.

Why is Domestic Abuse More Common When One Partner is a Citizen or Permanent Resident?

Domestic abuse is more prevalent among couples where one partner is a citizen or permanent resident and one is undocumented for the same reason it is more prevalent in the immigrant community in general: Control.

It must be understood that abuse against immigrant women often involves the threat of deportation. It is common that the abuser has control of their immigration documents and passport. As many as 65% of immigrant victims report some form of immigration-related abuse.

Oftentimes in a relationship where one spouse is a lawful resident or citizen and one undocumented, it is the responsibility of the documented spouse to file immigration papers. In cases where the abuser is supposed to file immigration documents, 75% never do. The minority that do file immigration documents take an average of nearly four years longer.

This makes it not only much more difficult, but much more dangerous for victims to look for help, let alone actually get help. When language and cultural barriers are factors, which is often, finding resources becomes even more challenging. Furthermore, abuse against immigrant women often involves preventing them from learning English at all. This means finding resources, or even knowing there are resources, can be especially difficult.

What Options Are There For Immigrants Who Are Victims of Domestic Abuse?

There are avenues for help that are specifically meant for immigrants to use, including those without documentation. Each has different requirements to cover different scenarios.

Self-Petition to Remove Conditions of Residency

When one partner is documented (For example, a citizen or permanent resident) and one needs documentation, the immigrant spouse can obtain a green card through a joint petition with their spouse. This grants them conditional residency for two years. During those two years, the spouses must file a joint petition to remove those conditions.

It is common that the abuser refuses to file the petition, thereby keeping their control. In these cases, the victim can self-petition to remove their conditions of residency without the participation of the abuser.

To do this, the victim must prove that they were married in “good faith,” and that they suffered abuse during the marriage. Here, “good faith” means that they were not married for immigration purposes.

If the petition is successful, then the victim is granted permanent residency status and a 10 year green card.

Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Self-Petition

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act and its expansions increased resources for immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse. Self-petitioning is one of the legal rights granted under the VAWA to immigrant victims.

The VAWA self-petition is meant for those without green cards, but meet specific criteria. The victim must show:

  • That they are a victim of domestic violence
  • Their relationship with the US citizen or permanent resident
  • Where they reside and where the abuse takes place
  • Good faith marriage
  • Good moral character

A VAWA self-petition may be filed for oneself, or for their children if abuse is directed at them as well. The petitioner must show that deportation would cause extreme hardship for them or their child/children. A successful petition results in a work permit and the ability to apply for a green card.

Battered Spouse Waiver

Battered spouse waivers are available for immigrant victims who have conditional residency. This is usually a conditional two-year green card. In these cases, conditional residency was obtained either through the abusive citizen/lawful resident, or simply a legal resident spouse or parent.

Here, a battered spouse may petition to have the conditions removed and their residency changed to permanent residency. This can be done without the abuser’s knowledge or participation.

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Cancellation of Removal/Suspension of Deportation Under VAWA

This is similar to the battered spouse waiver in that it can be done without the abuser’s knowledge or participation. It covers battered spouses or children of US citizens or lawful permanent residents who are in the deportation process.

It allows abused spouses or parents of an abused child to close their deportation proceedings and gain lawful permanent residency. There are a few criteria to meet in order to quality for suspension of deportation under VAWA:

  • The applicant has been in the US for at least three years before the removal process began
  • If the application is based on a spousal relationship, the applicant has to show they were married in good faith and not for immigration purposes
  • The applicant is not subject to any of the grounds of inadmissibility in US immigration law

It’s important to keep in mind that this is not an option if a final deportation order has been given. The process must be pending for a victim to be able to apply. Applicants must go before an immigration judge with the following:

  • A declaration of what they have experienced
  • Police records (if police reports were made, which is often not the case)
  • Proof of identity and abuse
  • Proof of the abuser’s immigration status and the applicant’s residency in the US (minimum three years)


The U-visa is intended for victims of crime resulting in physical and/or mental harm. The abuse stems from criminal activity. If given, the victim receives a legal immigration visa and work authorization. This may lead to lawful permanent residency. The U-visa typically takes four and a half years to process.

U-visas cover a wide range of crimes, including victims of domestic violence not currently covered by the VAWA. It also covers victims of rape, incest, sexual assault, female genital mutilation, and more. There are some criteria for eligibility:

  • The victim must have information about the crime
  • They must be willing to cooperate with the investigation or prosecution
  • Have suffered physical or psychological trauma


The last option is the T-visa. This is for victims who have been trafficked into the US (either through sex or labor trafficking). Victims must be willing to cooperate with the investigation and/or prosecution.

If given, the victim will receive a legal immigration visa, access to public benefits, and work authorization. Like the U-visa, this may lead to lawful permanent residency.

What Assistance Should Someone Expect From Organizations Like SEWA?

When a victim contacts SEWA, or an adjacent organization, they will find a caring ear and a compassionate advocate. All programs have staff who will listen and help connect victims with resources. Most programs have trained advocates who can help with all the details of getting to safety, such as welfare, CPS, immigration, disability, and more.

Many programs offer emergency shelters. The ones without their own shelters will have connections to nearby ones. Some programs have transitional housing, which is longer term housing for survivors.

Many, many organizations offer support groups, such as our own Chai & Chat group. Most programs will also directly provide legal advocacy, or connect victims with trusted contacts.

Lastly, most if not all programs have a 24-hour crisis line. SEWA’s crisis line (952-912-9100) is at the top of every page on our web site.

Our culturally-specific counselors are here for you. SEWA’s women’s programs are dedicated to providing what services we can to victims. If we cannot provide a service, we connect them with an organization that can.

If you or anyone you know is facing domestic abuse, our 24/7 crisis line is (952)-912-9100.

Learn more about our Women’s Programs here.

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