Proving Your VAWA Case: Evidence of Marriage, Abuse, and Good Moral Character

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) created a path to a green card for victims of domestic abuse in the Unites States.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) created a path to a green card for victims of domestic abuse in the Unites States. The victims can seek "adjustment of status" under VAWA, and thus became lawful permanent residents, if the abuser is or was a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR) spouse or parent and they can demonstrate meeting other criteria.

VAWA allows applicants to self-petition on Form I-360 for immigrant benefits even if the marriage ended in divorce, as long as the VAWA self-petitioner:

  1. demonstrates a connection between the divorce and the domestic violence, and
  2. files the petition within the statutory limit of two years from the termination (ending) of the alleged marriage (See Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) § 204(a) (1) (A) (iii) (aa) (CC) (ccc).)

Along with the I-360 form, VAWA petitioners must submit documents proving that the marriage was bona fide, that they are of good moral character, and that the U.S. citizen or LPR either physically or mentally abused them during the marriage, or their child during residence with the parent. (See 8 C.F.R. § §204.2(c)(1)(i)(E), (F), (e)(1)(E),(F).) This article will discuss how to prepare such documents.

Once USCIS approves the I-360 petition, the beneficiary will qualify for adjustment of status by filing Form I-485.

Safety and Privacy Considerations for Victims

Be sure to consider the privacy of your computer, smartphone, or tablet when seeking help online or over the phone. Some victims might use the same device, network, or phone plan as the abuser, allowing the abuser to see the victim's search or call history or otherwise track their activity. Many smart devices contain cameras or GPS tracking that can be used to locate and monitor your whereabouts. An abuser can even slip a small tracking device in your car, bag, pocket, or other belongings without your knowledge. If you're concerned about your privacy or safety, several organizations provide assistance and resources, including National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN. You can also check out our Resources for Victims of Crime.

Proving Bona Fide Marriage for VAWA/Immigration Purposes

A key requirement for a successful VAWA petition is solid evidence that the marriage was entered into in good faith, and wasn't just a sham by which to get a green card. Your VAWA self-petition should contain copies of some combination of the following, to show that you lived shared lives at some point:

  • Mortgages, deeds, property title, insurance policies, or leases containing the names of both spouses showing current or past joint ownership or tenancy of a common residence.
  • Automobile titles and insurance policies jointly held in the names of both spouses.
  • Bank records showing joint accounts with regular deposits and withdrawals, joint stock or mutual fund investments, or loans.
  • Federal income tax returns showing the couple filing as "married, filing jointly."
  • Documentation of commingling of assets with the names of both spouses, such as joint residence address on bills, invoices, credit card statements, utility bills, and membership cards for health clubs.
  • Birth certificates of children born to the marriage.
  • Driver's licenses showing that both spouses have resided at the same address.
  • Life and health insurance policies with the spouses listed as insureds or as beneficiaries, joint wills or trusts, and joint beneficiary designations on 401(k) or pension plans.
  • Proof of joint membership in clubs or other organizations.
  • Photographs of wedding ceremony or reception showing not only the couple but other people in attendance.
  • Copies of bills related to wedding expenses, other documents pertaining to the wedding arrangements, and mementos.
  • Vacation or holiday photos taken over the last few years.
  • Letters from community organizations, churches, civic groups or other entities in which the couple had joint involvement.
  • Affidavits from parents, relatives, friends, clergy members, and coworkers having knowledge of the bona fide marital relationship.
  • Copies of previously filed I-130, I-765, and I-485 applications to USCIS by the abusive spouse on behalf of the applicant, if available.

(For more, please see Proving a "Bona Fide" Marriage for Immigration Purposes.)

The law requires the VAWA petitioner to show having lived with the abuser at some point, whether inside or outside the United States. There is no specified duration of time the self-petitioner must establish, and it does not need to be while the two were actually married. Nevertheless, it is hard to prove abuse if the self-petitioner has never lived with the U.S. spouse or does not have proof of such cohabitation.

Proving That the U.S. Citizen or LPR Was Abusive

VAWA requires self-petitioners to show that they, or their child, "has been battered or has been the subject of extreme cruelty" by the U.S. citizen or LPR spouse or parent (see I.N.A. § §204 (a)(1)(A)(iii)(I)(bb) and (iv); (B) (ii)(I)(bb) and (iii)).

Many types of abuse can qualify someone for VAWA protection. Mental abuse is normally defined as including verbal abuse, social isolation, possessiveness, control, or diminution of quality of life.

A well-prepared VAWA self-petition will chart the relationship and its progression, from start to finish. You'll want to gather documentation of physical and mental health before and after the abuse began. Also present careful descriptions of the acts of abuse, corroborated with documentation and descriptions of the victim's life and ability to function as a result of abuse. It's also beneficial to gather information, written records, and statements from any of the victim's psychologists, social workers, police, friends and family members, hospitals and emergency providers, shelters, and community organizations.

Also see Proving Abuse to Get a Green Card Under VAWA.

Showing the Self-Petitioner's Good Moral Character

To qualify for VAWA benefits, a self-petitioner must demonstrate being a person of good moral character, particularly during the previous three years. Possible evidence includes:

  1. Affidavits from friends, family members, landlords, employers, and community organizations attesting to the applicant's moral character.
  2. Evidence of participation in volunteer and charitable organizations.
  3. Letters or records from police showing that self-petitioner has no criminal violations.

Proving the Abuser's U.S. Immigration Status

A VAWA self-petitioner will qualify only upon establishing that the abuser was or currently is a U.S. citizen or LPR. An attorney can help you obtain a birth certificate of the abuser if you do not have access to this document. Another possibility is to submit receipt or approval notices from I-130s or other petitions the abuser filed on your behalf (because the petition would have required proof of status in order for USCIS to accept or approve it).

If you don't have any of those, submit a sworn statement to USCIS explaining that, and ask it to check its records for proof of the U.S. petitioner's immigration status.

Note: Applicants can qualify under VAWA if the abuser has lost U.S. citizen or LPR status if the loss of status was was related to an incident of domestic violence. (The point is to make sure the victim doesn't have a disincentive to report abuse to law enforcement.) If the loss of status occurs after the victim files the self-petition, this won't impact the outcome.

Personal Statement by the Abuse Victim

In order to sum up the facts of the case, VAWA self-petitioners should prepare a personal statement consistent with the VAWA application. This should draw the various pieces of evidence together into an understandable narrative, and provide extensive details and a timeline of the abuse. In other words, it's not enough to simply say, "I was abused." Give detail.

USCIS Officers at Adjustment of Status Interviews Shouldn't Review Evidence of Abuse

Once USCIS approves the self-petition, the applicant may apply for adjustment of status (a green card) by filing USCIS Form I-485 plus other forms and documents. If the abuser previously filed I-130 for the victim, the self-petitioner may retain the priority date of the original I-130 (8 C.F.R. § 204.2(H)(2)).

The USCIS office that processes the applicant's Form I-485 will conduct an adjustment of status interview. The interviewing officer is not supposed to question the facts, degree, or sufficiency of abuse, although some try to do so regardless. In fact, sometimes, the local USCIS office recommends revocation of the approved VAWA petition, based on evidence that it discovered during its review.

In such a case, the local USCIS officer might prepare a legal memorandum to the office's supervisor, who subsequently might transfer the memorandum to the USCIS Service Center that approved the petition. Issues like these are good reasons to hire an immigration attorney to assist with your VAWA petition and green card application.

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