Children and spouses who have been abused are often afraid to report their abuse to the authorities. Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to provide immigration benefits for battered spouses and children.

Under VAWA, they can self-petition for lawful permanent residency. In certain sections of VAWA, abused immigrants can file for benefits without the abuser’s knowledge or assistance.

On March 15, 2022, President Joseph R. Biden signed the VAWA Reauthorization Act of 2022 into law. The bipartisan reauthorization of VAWA includes groundbreaking provisions to strengthen and modernize the law.

As a result of the law, survivors, the thousands of local programs that serve them, and communities are provided with much-needed resources for housing, legal assistance, alternatives to criminal responses, and prevention programs.

By strengthening non-discrimination laws and creating an LGBTQ services program, it also strengthens access for survivors of all genders.

In addition, the law restores tribal jurisdiction, allowing tribes to hold non-Native perpetrators accountable, improves existing housing protections, increases access to emergency and short-term housing, and invests in culturally-specific service providers.

A Brief History and Background

First passed in 1994 by then-Senator Joseph R. Biden, the Violence Against Women Act acknowledged domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes and provided federal resources to encourage community-coordinated responses to combat violence against women. Each VAWA reauthorization builds on existing protections and programs to better meet survivors’ needs.

Who May Self-Petition?

To self-petition, you must fall into one of the following categories:

  • If you are the battered spouse of a citizen or permanent resident, you may self-petition.
  • You can include your children as derivative beneficiaries if your spouse has abused your child.
  • A battered child (under 21 and unmarried) may self-petition.

How Do I Apply for Immigration Benefits?

Self-petitioners who are battered spouses or children should complete and file Form I-360. Include all the documentation you need to support your claim. If you send your I-360 to another USCIS office, it will be delayed. Make sure you keep copies of everything you send.

United States v. Morrison and VAWA’s Civil Rights Remedy

The 1994 bill took four years to draft and pass due to fierce opposition to its most contentious provision, a private civil rights remedy designed to protect African Americans from gender-based violence.

Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist led the opposition.

According to him and several judicial organizations, this private civil rights remedy would overwhelm the federal courts with cases that did not belong there.

Only the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) supported the civil rights remedy. NAWJ worked with Senate Judiciary Committee staff and Legal Momentum to refine the language of the provision to address concerns raised by legislators and judges.

As a result of consistent redrafting and advocacy efforts, the bill passed in 1994 with the civil rights remedy intact and nearly everything the Task Force had requested. Upon its approval, VAWA 1994 had the bipartisan support of 226 House and 68 Senate sponsors.

For many years following its enactment, VAWA’s civil rights remedy was upheld as constitutional.

The Commerce Clause and the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to pass VAWA. Congress had the power to regulate activities that, under a rational basis test, had a substantial effect on commerce at the time advocates and congressional staff drafted the law.

Domestic and sexual violence qualified under this test, given the vast costs borne by taxpayers as a result of them. Domestic violence alone was estimated at $5 to $10 billion in health care, criminal justice, and other special costs at that time.

What Is VAWA’s Impact?

Even though the civil rights remedy was eliminated, VAWA and its following reauthorizations have greatly increased services for victims of sexual and domestic violence and stalking, as well as teaching and training about violence against women for victim advocates, healthcare experts, law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges.

Several new legislative provisions include a ban on states charging rape victims for forensic sexual assault examinations and the criminalization of stalking through electronic surveillance.

VAWA was originally intended to improve criminal justice responses to domestic violence and increase services available to victims.

The VAWA 2000 and VAWA 2005 reauthorized the grant programs created by the original VAWA, expanded the mandate to address not only domestic violence but also sexual assault and stalking, and specifically addressed the needs of underserved populations.

As a result of VAWA 2000, battered immigrants, sexual assault survivors, and victims of dating violence were better protected. It enabled domestic violence victims who fled across state lines to obtain custody orders without returning to jurisdictions where they might be in danger and improved enforcement of protection orders.

The VAWA 2005 continued to improve upon these laws by increasing access to services for communities of color, immigrant women, and tribal and Native communities. Under VAWA 2005, new programs include Court Training and Improvements, Child Witness, and Culturally Specific Programs.

Domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking are addressed through coordinated community responses (CCR), which encourage jurisdictions to bring together people from diverse backgrounds to share info and use their distinct roles to improve community responses. Victim advocates, cops, lawyers, judges, probation and corrections officials, healthcare experts, faith leaders, and survivors of violence against women are among the players.

A component of the Department of Justice, the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), administers VAWA funds.

To oversee the creation of programs, policies, and practices that end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, OVW provides financial and technical assistance to communities across the country. It was established in 2002 as a permanent part of the Department of Justice with a Director appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

OVW has awarded almost $4 billion in VAWA grants since 1994 to state, tribal, and local governments, non-profit organizations, and universities. On February 19, 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included an additional $225 million for OVW to combat the legacy of laws and social norms that have long justified violence against women.

What Happens After I Self-Petition?

The process of receiving immigration benefits involves many steps:

  • Those who are able to establish a good case are considered “qualified aliens” and are eligible for public benefits. It is essential that you have followed all the requirements above and provided enough evidence to support your claim. You can receive public benefits for 150 days after receiving a Notice of Prima Facie Determination.
  • If your self-petition is approved, you may be placed in deferred action (if you do not have legal immigration status). This means that Immigration will not begin deportation proceedings against you.
  • In addition to deferred action, you will also be eligible for an Employment Authorization Card if you are placed on deferred action.
  • If you are an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, you may file to register permanent residence with your local USCIS office. You should check with your local office if any restrictions apply to your situation.

Do I Need an Experienced Immigration Law Attorney?

An experienced immigration lawyer would be able to help you navigate through the various immigration laws and agencies concerning your case. You can obtain and provide evidence for your petition with the help of a lawyer.