Her will was slowly, inexorably eroding to nothingness. The insults. The threats. The beatings. The demeaning tone of his demanding voice telling her she could walk out the door at any time—and that Immigration would be waiting for her outside. She could leave and forget about the child she left behind in her home country. A child she had not seen for three years. She was trapped. No papers, no hope, no escape. He was a United States Citizen. He knew the phone number of the immigration officers that could come in at any time and take her away to be deported. She could picture the last three years of agony, toil, and humiliating sacrifice withering away as she returned rejected, defeated, and penniless.
He had long ago taken away her passport and her birth certificate. He knew she couldn’t do anything without that. He had promised to file her immigration papers, but she knew now that it was just a lie. Caged in a prison devoid of walls, she wailed silently and unseen while the days and months became, what, three years already?
Every year, thousands of immigrants suffer mutely, victims of unscrupulous spouses that take advantage of the immigrants’ nonexistent position of power. But appearances can be deceiving.
In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed into law. The intention of this piece of legislation was to provide a way for abused immigrants to escape their tormentors. Normally, a family petition needs just that—a petitioner—to request the benefit for the immigrant (also known as the beneficiary). The way the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) was structured at the time, only through the active and willing participation of the petitioning spouse could an immigrant obtain family based immigration benefits. VAWA made it possible for the victim to file a petition on her (or his) own behalf. The form is I-360 and can be obtained from the USCIS website at http://www.uscis.gov. Protection from deportation and counseling resources were made available as part of the aid provided to the victims. The result was a sliver of hope shining in a pitch-dark tunnel.
While the VAWA made significant inroads toward correcting the plight of millions of immigrants subjected to extreme cruelty or abuse, it was far from a perfect fix. Many oversights in this important law were addressed in the amendments to the VAWA (Violence Against Women Act of 2000). Nicknamed the VAWA II, it fixed provisions that left abused immigrants unprotected if they, among other situations, divorced the abuser before the filing of the self petition. It also provided renewed funding for many support programs and permitted the adjustment to permanent residents even if the victim had entered illegally. It also lowered the standards that needed to be met to show hardship if removed from the United States.
For the immigrant victim of a United States Citizen or Legal Permanent Resident, the VAWA presents an opportunity to end the cycle of violence and achieve a measure of social justice. Help is available through the National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 [TDD] for information about shelters, mental health care, legal advice and other types of assistance, including information about self-petitioning for immigration status.