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Immigrants and Domestic Violence

If you are a victim of domestic violence (see Domestic Violence), you have the right to be safe, regardless of your legal status in the United States. You may worry that you don’t have the right to call the police if you are being abused, but that is not true.

When you contact police about domestic violence, their duty is to protect you from your abuser. They are not supposed to call ICE to inform them you are in the United States without legal status.

If you are afraid of your abuser or think they may hurt you, you can go to the court or the police to ask for a restraining order (see Abuse Prevention Orders).

If you are a victim of domestic violence and you do not have legal status in the US, you should contact immigration lawyers and advocates to help protect you.

Legal Status for Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence

If you are a victim or survivor of domestic violence, there are laws that can allow you to gain legal status in the United States.

Violence Against Women Act

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was created to protect victims of domestic violence, and offers specific protections for people without legal status in the US. VAWA also protects men and children who are victims of domestic violence.

If you are being abused by your U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident ("green card") Spouse,  Parent, or Child (over 21) OR your child is being abused by his or her U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident ("green card") Parent, VAWA can help you escape violence and gain legal permanent status.

If these immigration laws apply to you, you can get legal status without help from your battering spouse or parent. By law, US citizens and lawful permanent residents (“green card holders”) can petition for their immediate family members to receive legal status.

However, abusers often may refuse to assist you with applying for immigration status, may promise to apply for you, but never actually help, or threaten to contact immigration and report you. VAWA helps victims of domestic violence allowing them to self-petition for their own legal status without the abuser’s help or knowledge.

How do I petition for citizenship or legal status through VAWA?

If you are a victim of domestic violence and your abuser is a citizen or lawful permanent resident (“green card holder”), you can self petition for status by submitting the form titled “I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant." In addition to this form, you need to include evidence to prove that you meet the requirements for VAWA. Contact an immigration lawyer if you want to self-petition under VAWA laws.

What are the requirements for VAWA?

If you have been abused by your spouse, you can self petition for status if:

  • You are legally married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident abuser OR you believed that you were legally married to your abusive U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse but the marriage was not legitimate;
  • You have suffered battery/extreme cruelty by your U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse:
    • You have been abused by your U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, or
    • Your child has been subjected to battery or extreme cruelty by your U.S. or permanent resident spouse;
  • You entered into the marriage in good faith, which means you did not get married  solely for immigration benefits;
  • You have lived  with your spouse;
  • You are a person of good moral character, which often means a person who has not broken any US laws or committed any serious crimes.

If you have been abused by your parent, you can self petition for status if:

  • You are the child of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident abuser;
  • You have suffered battery/extreme cruelty by your U.S. citizen or permanent resident parent;
  • You have resided with your abusive parent; and
  • You are a person of good moral character, which often means a person who has not broken any US laws or committed any serious crimes. A child less than 14 years of age is presumed to be a person of good moral character. 

If you have been abused by your child, you can self petition for status if:

  • You are the parent of a U.S. citizen son or daughter who is at least 21 years of age when the self-petition is filed;
  • You have suffered battery or extreme cruelty by your U.S. citizen son or daughter;
  • You have resided with the abusive son or daughter; and
  • You are a person of good moral character, which often means a person who has not broken any US laws or committed any serious crimes.

What kind of evidence will I need?

Collecting the evidence you will need can be complicated, but you should try to get as much as possible of the following, without putting yourself or others in danger:

  • Your marriage certificate if you are filing a petition based on an abusive spouse,
  • Birth certificates if you are filing based on an abusive parent or child,
  • Evidence that you and the batterer lived together such as birth certificates of children, bills, leases, family photos, tax returns, etc.,
  • Proof of the abuse such as restraining or civil protection orders, police reports, medical records, criminal records of the batterer, a letter from a battered women's program, counselling records, photographs of injuries or bruises, affidavits of the witnesses describing the abuse,
  • Evidence of "good moral character" such as proof that you have no criminal record, a letter from your religious institution, or evidence of community involvement,
  • You must provide a written affidavit describing the history of your relationship with the batterer.

Here is a helpful guide for document gathering.

What if my abuser has died, has lost their legal status, or I am divorced?

If your abuser has died, you may still self-petition for legal status within 2 years of their death. If you are divorced, you may still file a self-petition within 2 years of when the divorce is final.  If your abuser has lost their own legal status due to domestic violence, you can still submit a self petition with no time limitations.

What if I am in immigration court?

You can self-petition or apply for another type of relief called "cancellation of removal." You can be granted cancellation of removal even if you are divorced from your battering spouse when you apply. To qualify for cancellation of removal, you will also have to submit a regular self petition AND also show that you have been in the United States for at least three continuous years.

What if I have a conditional or temporary green card?

If you have a conditional green card (valid for 2 years) you will file a different petition, titled I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence. You will also have to explain why you and your abusive spouse aren’t filing a joint petition. You will need to submit the same type of evidence described above for the I-360.

What if my abuser is not a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident or if I was never married to my batterer?

Even if your abuser is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, there may be other ways for you to get protection through legal status. For example, a U-visa (provide link to larger section) is a pathway to legal status if you have been a victim of a crime and you have been, or are willing to be, helpful in the investigation or prosecution of this crime.

In a domestic violence situation, you could be eligible for a U visa if you contacted the police, if your abuser was arrested, assisted the district lawyer’s office, if you testified in court against your abuser, or helped in some other way. You should consult an immigration lawyer and ask about the U Visa.

What if my abuser is not a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, or if I was never married to my batterer, AND I never contacted the police or other agency about the abuse?

If you are the victim of domestic violence but do not qualify for help through VAWA or a U Visa, you should still seek help from the police or other social services agencies if you are in danger. You may want to talk to an immigration lawyer to see if you may qualify for some other type of immigration benefit.

Links to VAWA manuals

If you are in need of support, resources, and a safe place for yourself and your children:

Call SafeLink a 24-hour Hotline at 1-877-785-2020.

(Safelink is a project of Boston's Casa Myrna Vasquez, Inc)

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Last Updated May 2016

Who to call for help

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

Find Legal Aid

the Battered Immigrant Women's Project at:

Community Legal Services And Counseling Center (CLSACC)

(617) 661-1010

Greater Boston Legal Services

(617) 371-1234

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