One of the major purposes behind U.S. immigration laws is the goal of unifying families, particularly spouses, parents, children, and in some cases siblings, along with their immediate families. This is often accomplished by one U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR), who has the power to submit visa petitions for certain family members, and ultimately help them obtain U.S. immigration status.
An unfortunate side effect however, results when a U.S. citizen or resident uses that power as a means for controlling an immigrant in a vulnerable position. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was designed to address this issue.
Over the years, immigrants, particularly (but not always) women, have found themselves victims of abuse at the hands of the person with the power to petition them to stay in the United States. The abuser will often use his or her status as a U.S. citizen as a means of asserting control over an often scared and vulnerable spouse by threatening to not file important immigration paperwork, which would likely result in deportation. The U.S. spouse might also threaten to take custody of any children.
Victims of abuse often find themselves isolated from their family members, unable to work, and without means for helping themselves escape their abusers. The victims are often completely dependent on the U.S. spouse for basic needs. They may not even know how far along in the green card process they are, as their spouses keep ahold of all the key documentation. The abuse may not always be physical, but is often emotional or sexual in nature.
The VAWA provides an alternative means for abuse victims to obtain legal status in the U.S., allowing them to take control of their own green card application by filing a "self petition." By proving that they were victims of abuse, as well as their abuser’s status as a U.S. citizen or LPR, the immigrants may be able to adjust status to legal permanent resident (assuming various other requirements are met). The self-petition is done on USCIS Form I-360. See Process to get a Green Card Under VAWA for details on the application process.
This self-petitioning process allows escape from the control of the abuser, whose participation in the green card application process is no longer required.
A self-petition under VAWA can even be submitted after removal proceedings have begun against the immigrant -- that is, in cases where the immigration authorities are trying to remove the person from the U.S., most likely for lack of legal status.
Procedurally speaking, the immigration judge is likely to hold the court proceedings from moving forward until USCIS has made a decision on the merits of the I-360 self-petition. In cases where an I-360 self-petition has been approved by USCIS, the immigration judge has jurisdiction and discretion to adjudicate (make a decision on) an I-485 Application for Adjustment of Status. If all goes well, the judge will terminate removal proceedings against the person and issue an order granting permanent residency. The person will receive a green card by mail some weeks later.
Victims of domestic violence who can file a self-petition under VAWA are not in all cases female, but can also be male and can include children. You can file if you have a husband, wife, father, mother, stepfather, or stepmother who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, and if that person has abused you or your child physically, sexually, or psychologically.