Tag Archives: Domestic violence

GUEST BLOG: GWU Law Clinic Victory in Domestic Violence Case! By Paulina Vera

10 Nov

Vera Blog PhotoThis blog post was written by Paulina Vera, a student at George Washington University Law School, who is part of the Law School’s outstanding immigration clinic.

On October 10, 2014, my client, S-G-L-, was granted asylum by Immigration Judge Paul W. Schmidt of the Arlington Immigration Court. S-G-L- fled Honduras in 2009 after her domestic partner attacked her with weapons and repeatedly beat and raped her. S-G-L- feared that her abuser would find her if she were to move elsewhere in Honduras and for that reason she made the decision to flee to the United States. Unfortunately, S-G-L- had to leave behind her 10-year-old daughter.

S-G-L-‘s hearing only lasted about ten minutes. But those ten minutes took years of preparation and I personally worked on the case for a little over three months. The GW Law Immigration Clinic first began to represent S-G-L- in the fall of 2011. However, because her hearing was rescheduled twice, S-G-L- had to wait years before appearing before the court.

Several of S-G-L-‘s former student attorneys attended her hearing. In fact, S-G-L- joked that she had never been surrounded by so many attorneys before. Their presence helped ease my nerves and I was reminded of just how lucky I was to have their support throughout the entire process. S-G-L-‘s former student-attorneys include Diane Eikenberry, Rachael Petterson, Denisse Velarde-Cubek, Gabriela Muñoz, Kelly Rojas, and Aimee Rider. They helped in many different ways, including putting together S-G-L-‘s affidavit, obtaining her work authorization, and gathering medical reports.

By the time I was assigned to S-G-L’s case, the main tasks left were to put together the pre-trial filing (PTF) and to represent S-G-L- at her individual hearing. My first challenge arose when I reviewed S-G-L-‘s approximately 30-page affidavit with her. Though I am fluent in Spanish, I found it difficult to find the right words to discuss the traumatic experiences S-G-L- had endured. As previously mentioned, S-G-L- had suffered years of abuse at the hands of her domestic partner. This was not a topic that I was used to talking about in Spanish. Thankfully, S-G-L- was incredibly patient with me. We were able to communicate by explaining concepts or words in several different ways and sometimes, even by using gestures.

I encountered another challenge in putting together the behemoth of a pre-trial filing. By the time I was done putting it together, it was a little under 300 pages, which is actually on the shorter side as far as Clinic PTFs go. There were so many details that I had to pay attention to at once – Did my cover letter succinctly and accurately explain why the elements of asylum were met? What information should I highlight in the table of contents? Was there enough information in the affidavit? Was there too much? In addition to all of these questions, I had to figure out all of those practical things you don’t learn in a law school classroom; for example, how to correctly number, copy, and file copies of the PTF to the Court and to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

However, the preparation for my direct examination was the biggest challenge I faced. I was understandably nervous going into the moot of my hearing but I struggled to push past those nerves even as the moot went on. I kept trying to ask what I thought would be the “perfect” question and I would pause all too often to think about what answer I was trying to elicit from my client. No matter what point of my client’s testimony we started at, I just could not seem to get the hang of it. By the end of the moot, I was frustrated and disappointed in myself.

The feedback I received from my supervisors and fellow student-attorneys after my moot helped tremendously. They reminded me that I had all the reason to be confident in myself – I had spent months preparing S-G-L-‘s case and knew the PTF backwards and forwards. My supervisors, Professor Alberto Benitez and Jonathan Bialosky, advised me that there was no such thing as the “perfect” question. They also reminded me that in immigration court, a direct examination was more conversational, so I should not force it so much. Previous student-attorney, Rachael Petterson – who was kind enough to play the role of Immigration Judge at my moot – told me that there was nothing wrong with the way I felt and she shared that she too felt the same frustrations at her first moot.

Ultimately, I did not hEOIRave to conduct my direct examination at S-G-L-‘s hearing. Yet I was ready for it. When I entered the courtroom on October 10th, I was still nervous, but no longer in a way that was debilitating. Keeping in mind all of the advice that had been given to me, I felt more confident at the actual hearing. These are lessons that I will certainly use in practice after I graduate.

Another lesson I learned in preparing for S-G-L-‘s hearing was the importance of working with the DHS trial attorney. A week before my hearing, I reached out to Ms. Jill Parikh to see if we could discuss any issues in the case. After she returned my call and outlined the various issues

she had flagged, my supervisors and I felt confident that those specific issues had been addressed by the PTF. Therefore, before the hearing I approached Ms. Parikh and asked her if she would be willing to move straight to her cross-examination, which she agreed to. After her brief cross-examination, Ms. Parikh did not oppose a grant of asylum.

At the hearing, I learned that winning asylum is also very much dependent on the adjudicator. Judge Schmidt carefully reviewed the pre-trial filing before the hearing and was familiar with the horrific facts of the case. After he granted S-G-L- asylum, he took the time to address S-G-L- and advised her to “do good things for [herself], her daughter, and the country that granted [her] refuge.” His words moved S-G-L- to tears and she repeatedly thanked him. He also reminded S-G-L- to thank her student-attorneys and Ms. Parikh. I am grateful for Judge Schmidt’s kind words regarding my pre-trial filing.

I am grateful to the GW Immigration Clinic for the opportunity to help S-G-L- seek safety in the United States. There are many people in my support system that I want to thank. I would like to thank my supervisors, Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky, who answered my many, many questions, set up moot hearings, and gave me invaluable feedback on my pre-trial filing and my hearing preparation. I would like to thank all of S-G-L-‘s prior student-attorneys for putting countless hours of work into this case and for being a comforting presence in the courtroom on the day of S-G-L-‘s hearing. Many thanks to my fellow student-attorneys as well for their encouragement and their willingness to help out at S-G-L-‘s moot hearing. I would like to thank Professor Maggs for observing the hearing and for his continued support of the work the Clinic does. Finally, I would like to give a big thank you to S-G-L- for being the best first client I could have asked for. S-G-L- suffered unimaginable persecution in her home country and I am inspired by her strength and her perseverance.

Victory! BIA finds Domestic Violence Victims May Qualify for Asylum

27 Aug

U.S. Agents Take Undocumented Immigrants Into Custody Near Tex-Mex Border

In a major victory for immigrants, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled yesterday that women who are unable to leave domestic violence caused by their husbands may qualify as a particular social group for asylum purposes.  This decision brings to an end a lengthy period of uncertainty regarding the viability of claims to asylum by women fleeing domestic violence.  The Board’s decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I.&N. Dec. 388 (BIA 2014), establishing clear and controlling law to the nation’s immigration judge that victims of domestic violence can qualify for asylum.  While the law has been moving in this direction for quite some time, there was still a lack of Board precedent obligating immigration judges nationwide to follow it.  While progressive judges cobbled together legal authority from circuit court cases and unpublished decisions, recalcitrant judges used the lack of directing precedent to deny domestic violence claims.  The Board’s decisions removes any uncertainty that victims of domestic violence can obtain asylum in the U.S. due to the domestic violence they suffered in their home country.  The decision could not be more timely as the influx of women and children on the Southern border being detained in Artesia, New Mexico has shone a spotlight on the ability of victims of domestic violence to seek protection under U.S. asylum law.  The decision gives these applicants a potent new weapon and undermines the administration’s ability to remove them with barely a semblance of due process.

The decision is the result of nearly two decades of litigation on the topic of victims’ of domestic violence eligibility for asylum.  This issue has been pushed for all that time by Karen Musalo of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California at Hastings, who conceived the legal basis for the asylum claim and saw through a terrible BIA precedent called Matter of R-A-, which, in the BIA’s first analysis, denied asylum eligibility to victims of domestic violence.  R-A- eventually got settled with Rodi Alvarado being granted asylum but without a precedent decision.  That precedent decision came down yesterday.

In yesterday’s decision, the BIA squarely held that ” ‘married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship’ can constitute a cognizable particular social group that forms the basis of a claim for asylum or withholding of removal.”  The Board considered a case where a married woman suffered atrocious abuse at the hands of her husband, who tried to leave the relationship, and who was rebuffed by the police when she sought help.  The BIA considered the development of case law on particular social groups, the facts of the case, and the social context in which domestic violence occurs and determined that the social group of “married Guatemalan women who are unable to leave their relationship” can support a claim to asylum.

Of course, the individual facts and social context of the case are extremely important.  However, the decision gives strong support to the thousands of women fleeing domestic violence by coming to the U.S. and provides hope that there is an alternative to the violence and degradation they experienced in their home countries.

GUEST BLOG: Gender-Based Asylum Victory in Virginia by the George Washington University Law School Immigration Clinic

15 Apr

This post was written by Sydney Barron, a law student at George Washington University Law School and a member of the school’s Immigration Clinic, under the direction of Professor Alberto Benitez.  Benach Ragland periodically offers this space to law students and non-profit organizations to discuss their immigration cases.  If you are a law school professor or a non-profit organization that wishes to tell the story of one of your immigration cases, please write us at acbenach@benachragland.com.

 

On March 11, 2014, my client, Julia[1] won the asylum that she requested over a decade ago. Julia fled horrific domestic violence in her home country, Guatemala, and came to the United States in 2002. Unfortunately, Julia was not able to bring her children with her when she fled. After she entered the United States, the George Washington Immigration Clinic helped her file her asylum claim. Julia had to live with uncertainty for over a decade as her case wound its way through the immigration system. By the time Julia was finally granted asylum twelve years after fleeing her abuser, she had appeared before three different immigration judges, and worked with twenty different student-attorneys from the GW Immigration Clinic.

Sydney Barron Photo

GWU Law Student Sydney Barron

Julia filed for asylum in 2003. There was insufficient time for all of her testimony and cross-examination at her first individual merits hearing in 2004, so she had an additional individual merits hearing scheduled. The next hearing was not held until 2006 because the immigration court was so busy at the time.

When Julia first filed for asylum, the law of asylum for victims of domestic violence was far from favorable. At that time, the immigration courts were waiting for regulatory guidance on the issue of granting asylum to victims of domestic violence, but were hesitant to grant asylum while such guidance remained pending. For this reason, the immigration judge administratively closed Julia‘s case in 2006. This situation provided only temporary protection, and her case could be reopened at any time. Additionally, even though Julia could remain in the United States while her case was administratively closed, she could not bring her children here unless she was granted asylum.

A year later in 2007, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) requested that the case be reopened. In June 2009, the immigration judge issued a written decision finding that Julia was credible and had suffered harm rising to the level of past persecution, but there was no “nexus” between the harm she suffered and her membership in a particular social group. The immigration judge therefore denied Julia‘s asylum claim.

The GW Immigration Clinic assisted Julia in appealing her case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”). Before Julia‘s appeal was decided by the BIA, the law on asylum for victims of domestic violence shifted and became more favorable. The most well-known case on the eligibility of victims of domestic violence for asylum is Matter of R-A-. In Matter of R-A-, a Guatemalan woman suffered terrible abuse from her husband.[2] Fourteen years after R-A- applied for asylum, in December 2009, an immigration judge granted R-A-’s request for asylum.[3] Another central case regarding asylum for victims of domestic violence, Matter of L-R, ended in 2010 with a grant of asylum.[4] In both Matter of R-A- and Matter of L-R-, DHS submitted briefs describing the circumstances that they considered sufficient for a domestic violence victim to be eligible for asylum.[5] Given these two historic asylum grants, a prior student-attorney at the GW Immigration Clinic submitted a Motion to Remand Julia‘s case with the BIA.

When I first met Julia, she had not yet heard back from the BIA about the Motion to Remand. During my first semester in the GW Immigration Clinic, the BIA remanded Julia’s case to the Arlington Immigration Court. My first appearance in immigration court was for Julia‘s master calendar hearing. The GW Immigration Clinic Director, Professor Alberto Benitez, and my other supervisor, Mr. Jonathan Bialosky, prepared me to ask for a grant of asylum at this hearing. They explained that this was an unlikely outcome, and was extremely unlikely without DHS’s support. However, if I were able to convince DHS to agree to a grant, the immigration judge might grant Julia asylum given the prior immigration judge’s findings on credibility and the violence Julia suffered.

On the day of the master calendar hearing, the DHS trial attorney had not yet received Julia‘s file from the BIA, and could not support a grant. Luckily, the immigration judge recognized that Julia had already been waiting for over a decade, and scheduled the merits hearing for March 11, 2014. This was a huge relief to Julia, and myself, since some cases are scheduled up to two years from the master calendar hearing date.

In preparation for the individual hearing, I met with Julia multiple times a week. Her family members had alerted her to continued threats made by her abuser, including threats to beat, rape, and kill her. I submitted affidavits from Julia and her family about these threats.   I also submitted evidence from a psychiatrist, which supported Julia‘s testimony, and multiple articles about Guatemala and its institutionalized acceptance of domestic violence.

Before the individual merits hearing with the immigration judge, the GW Immigration Clinic held a moot hearing with Julia. Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky explained that I should not have a set of questions written down, because they had seen student-attorneys become dependent on a list of questions, ignoring what their client was actually saying. I wrote out the main issues that I wanted to get Julia to testify about, and practiced asking non-leading questions with other student-attorneys.  On the day of the moot hearing, I realized the difficulty of an actual direct examination, especially the difficulty of asking non-leading questions to get Julia to provide necessary details. Additionally, Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky asked the student-attorney playing the role of the trial attorney to try to surprise and rattle me by objecting to my evidence and submitting new evidence during the moot. The moot hearing taught me the importance of carefully listening to the client’s testimony and asking sufficient follow-up questions to ensure the client mentions all relevant details. It also taught me the importance of projecting confidence in my questions and responses, especially when unexpected issues arise.

The day before the hearing, I called the trial attorney who was assigned to Julia‘s case. I left her a message asking if she had received my pre-trial filing, and offering to answer any questions she might have. That afternoon the trial attorney returned my call while I was in class, and while I was able to excuse myself to an empty room, I did not have any of my notes with me. My lack of notes initially worried me; however, once the trial attorney started asking me questions about the case, I realized that the months of preparation had hammered all of the facts into my head, and I could easily discuss the case without any notes.   We discussed the procedural history of the case and the evidence that Julia’s abuser continued to threaten her. After answering all of the trial attorney’s questions, I felt confident that the trial attorney appreciated the grave danger that Julia would face if she were forced to return to Guatemala.

On the day of Julia’s individual merits hearing, Professor Benitez, Mr. Bialosky, and many of the other student-attorneys who came to support Julia were present in the courtroom. Immediately before the hearing, the trial attorney informed me that she would not be opposing a grant of asylum. Julia was extremely excited, but I explained that nothing was certain until the immigration judge granted her asylum. The immigration judge requested that I do a short direct examination of Julia, and after my direct examination the trial attorney did a short cross-examination. After Julia returned to her seat, the immigration judge gave his oral decision granting Julia asylum. To the surprise of everyone in the courtroom, Julia asked the judge if she could hug him. The judge explained that he could not hug her in person, but that he would “hug” her from where he was. Both Julia and the immigration judge hugged the air in front of them in a very touching moment. Julia also hugged the trial attorney after the hearing was over. Professor Benitez told me later that it was the first time that he had ever seen a client ask to hug the immigration judge or the trial attorney.

I am grateful to the GW Immigration Clinic for the opportunity to assist Julia in her search for safety. I am grateful to my supervisors, Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky, who guided me through the process, set up moot hearings, and provided feedback on my pre-trial filing and hearing preparation. I am grateful to all of the other student-attorneys for their help throughout the year, providing feedback and helping to prepare Julia for cross-examination. Finally, I am grateful to Julia, an inspiring woman who persevered with immense strength. The opportunity to help protect her from further abuse and finally bring her a sense of peace and closure was an amazing gift.

 

[1] My client’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

[2] Matter of R-A-, 22 I&N Dec. 906 (BIA 1999), vacated, 22 I&N Dec. 906 (A.G. 2001), remanded, 23 I&N Dec. 694 (A.G. 2005), remanded, 24 I&N Dec. 629 (A.G. 2008).

[3] Lisa Mendel-Hirsa, Recent Landmark Victories in the On-Going Struggle for U.S. Immigration Law to Recognize and Fully Protect Women’s Human Rights, Empire Justice Center (Nov. 19, 2010), http://www.empirejustice.org/issue-areas/domestic-violence/battered-immigrants/articles/domestic-violence-and.html#.U0Ac3fldVHI.

[4] Id.

[5] Department of Homeland Security’s Position on Respondent’s Eligibility for Relief,

Matter of R-A-, 22 I. & N. Dec. 906 (Feb. 19, 2004) (File No. A 73 753 922); Department of Homeland Security’s Supplemental Brief, Matter of [L-R-, redacted] (Apr. 13, 2009).

GUEST BLOG: Catholic University Law Students Win Protection for South African Client!

20 Mar

Judy and Tarun

By Judith Muñoz and Tarunpal Dhillon, Student Attorneys with the Catholic University Law School Immigration Litigation Clinic

 

We met our client, Tanya,[i] for the first time on December 18, 2013 at the Baltimore Immigration Court. She stood behind a glass door, in a navy blue jumpsuit, handcuffed and shackled. As she told us her story of survival in South Africa, a few points became very clear about our client: she is a source of inspiration, a fighter, and a seeker of justice. Her story is similar to that of David and Goliath.  She is an individual who, against all odds, dared to question and challenge a powerful, dominating, and resourceful enemy. The enemy in our client’s story is not a single individual but an all-powerful entity, consisting of hundreds of corCorrupt SA police 1rupt men going against the very principle of righteousness they vowed to abide by and the very principle of justice they vowed to uphold – the South African Police. The South African Police conspired with a notorious criminal gang to target and harm our client, Tanya, due to a deeply rooted animosity surrounding the controversial death of Tanya’s brother, a former police reservist.  Tanya had sought answers from the corrupt South African Police regarding her brother’s death, answers the police did not want to give.  For that, she became their target.

Fleeing imminent death threats, Tanya came the United States with a J1 visa in 2005. Once in the United States, Tanya obtained a U visa as a victim of domestic violence. In 2011, however, Tanya’s U visa was revoked after she was found guilty of a criminal offense during which she was acting in self-defense against her abuser. She was placed in removal proceedings before the Baltimore Immigration Court, and ultimately, she was ordered removed to South Africa, the very country she had fled years before. Although she had an appeal pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Department of Homeland Security deported Tanya to South Africa.  In an effort to hide and protect herself from the police and the gang, Tanya relocated and took extreme measures to change her identity. Despite her efforts, however, the police used its mighty resources to track her down. Again, they used the notorious criminal gang to do their dirty work for them. The gang found Tanya and attacked her on two different occasions, threatening her life and destroying any sense of security she had gained by her relocation and change of identity. Tanya moved around, staying in the homes of friends and acquaintances, trying to stay out of reach of the police and the gang, until December of 2013, when she received news that the Board of Immigration Appeals had granted her appeal. The Board remanded her case back to the Baltimore Immigration Court and requested that she return to the United States to litigate her application for protection under the Convention Against Torture.

After hearing our client’s story, we quickly realized the enormous responsibility that we agreed to put on our shoulders. We were to become protectors, fighters-for-justice, and zealous advocates for a woman who feared she would be brutally and viciously attacked and killed by a notorious criminal gang working under the orders of the South African Police. Our most important and challenging task was to establish the relationship and collusion between these two criminal, corrupt entities and relay it persuasively in front of the immigration judge during Tanya’s individual merits hearing.

Corrupt SA police 2

We spent the next three months dedicating our lives to fighting for our client’s life. As law students, the real world of immigration practice had arrived very quickly and was knocking on our door. We made the choice to open that door and step through it to try to save our client. The process was overwhelming and stressful because the stakes were so very high, but at the same time, this case was an opportunity to transition from inexperienced first-time litigators to zealous advocates fighting for justice for our deserving client. We seized the opportunity and have felt a true transformation from students to advocates, a trait that has now become a part of our identities.

The individual merits hearing represented the most difficult and costly law school exam that we agreed to partake in. We agreed, amongst ourselves, to view the outcome as an indicator of our skill level.  We were students, up against an experienced attorney for the Department of Homeland Security.  We had a decision to make: we could either act like students and fall back to our insecurities and uncertainties, or we could step into the real world of advocacy and put everything on the table for our client. We viewed the hearing as our opportunity to fight for Tanya, for justice, and for humanity – everything Tanya was unable to procure in her native South Africa. After months of preparation, there was nowhere else in the world we would have wanted to be other than at our client’s side, defending her and seeking justice.

The hearing consisted of three-and-a-half hours of direct and cross examinations, client and witness testimony, evidentiary challenges, responses to objections by opposing counsel, and answers to tough questions from the immigration judge.  It ended with an oral decision given by the immigration judge. When the immigration judge stated that he was ready to make his decision, we took a big breath and silently prayed. The wait was unbearable and our hearts were beating at an exceptionally high rate, but we knew we had done everything in our ability to fight for our client. When the immigration judge announced his decision to grant our client deferral of removal under the Convention Against Torture, we experienced a type of joy and accomplishment never before experienced by either of us in our lifetime. It hit us: we had saved our client’s life.

Our client’s reaction made the three months of insanity, stress, frustration with complicated legal theories, and uncertainty as students in the challenging world of immigration law all worthwhile.  Tears poured down her face while she repeatedly whispered the words “thank you”. Tanya was released from immigration detention that afternoon, and we were able to walk out of the immigration court building with our client, who was literally jumping and skipping for joy, a free woman who can now live safely in the United States. Walking out of the court with Tanya was an amazing feeling. Fighting for justice to save a woman from torture at the hands of the corrupt South African Police is an accomplishment we will never forget. It was one of the best days of our lives.

The success of our case is attributable to a number of exceptional individuals that worked tirelessly and vigorously with us over the three-month timeframe. We had the support of two amazing supervising attorneys, our professors, Michelle Mendez and Dree Collopy, who taught us immigration law and the skills we needed to practice before the U.S. immigration courts, and prepared us for the countless scenarios that could be thrown at us during the individual hearing. They were our mentors and educators, and were always present as a source of optimism and encouragement. We were also fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with an exceptionally wonderful human being, who donated many hours of her time to work with us as our expert on police collusion in South Africa, Dr. Fran Buntman of George Washington University.  Lastly, we had the tremendous support of our fellow classmates and participants in the Immigration Litigation Clinic at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.

As a direct result of our particDavid-Vs-Goliathipation in Catholic University’s Immigration Litigation Clinic, we were blessed with the opportunity to meet an amazing client who came to us with a David and Goliath scenario, but left us with the confidence to face seemingly impossible odds and the passion to fight for what’s right. For us, the clinic was not just a class…it was a transformation.


[i] Our client’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Congress Reauthorizes VAWA But Falls Short On Immigration Provisions

6 Mar

After a long wait, Congress has reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), with several new protections that are of relevance to immigrant clients and practitioners. President Obama is expected to sign the bill this afternoon.

VAWA evil

VAWA evil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But first, what is VAWA? In 1994, Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA I), the first comprehensive federal legislation to address specifically the issue of violence against women. VAWA I improved greatly the availability of overall support and resources for domestic violence survivors through the creation of new criminal enforcement authority and enhanced penalties to combat domestic violence in federal courts, and provided grants to fund programs to fight violence against women.

Prior to VAWA I, immigrant spouses and children could only apply for legal residency if their United States citizen or legal permanent resident spouses filed legal residency applications on their behalf. VAWA I changed that by providing a way for battered immigrant spouses and children to gain legal immigration status by self-petitioning, so that they could escape abusive marriages with U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouses. Additionally, VAWA I also provided a special form of suspension of deportation for battered spouses or children to apply to become lawful permanent residents if they could demonstrate extreme hardship to themselves or to immediate relatives. However, VAWA I proved to be ineffective and inaccessible for many due to subsequent changes and additions to immigration law, which unintentionally eliminated or rendered inaccessible many of the VAWA I protections for battered immigrant spouses and their children.

Despite its noble intentions, VAWA I fell short on several fronts. The battered immigrant had the burden to proof that the batterer was a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, which was often difficult to establish. Additionally, under VAWA I, if a batterer lost U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent resident status prior to approval of the self-petition, the former INS could automatically deny the battered immigrant’s petition. Moreover, VAWA I prevented victims from divorcing their batterers prior to filing the petition. As such, battered immigrants with pending divorces could not request fee waivers for their VAWA petitions without the risk that such waiver requests would potentially delay the filing of the self-petitions until after their divorces had been finalized. Battered immigrants in removal proceedings had to prove “extreme hardship” to prevail, which often served as a bar to relief. VAWA I also had a “good moral character” requirement that served as a bar to abused immigrants who had been convicted of crimes against their perpetuators due to self-defense. In order to address these shortcomings, in 2000, Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act of 2000 (VAWA II) to re-authorize grants and programs established under the original VAWA.

Title V of VAWA II, or the “Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 2000” (BIWPA), was enacted to improve access to immigration protections of VAWA for battered immigrant women, improve access to cancellation of removal and suspension of deportation, and create new VAWA II provisions, such as the “U” nonimmigrant visa, which allowed people without immigrant status to gain a visa for reporting serious crimes perpetrated against them. Under VAWA II, a battered immigrant retained the right to self-petition if the batterer was a United States citizen who died within the past two years or the batterer lost or renounced immigrant status within the past two years due to an incident “related” to the domestic violence. VAWA II also allowed the battered immigrant to self-petition even if the marriage had already been terminated if the battered immigrant could prove that the divorce was “connected” to battering or extreme cruelty by the United States citizen spouse or legal permanent resident. In addition, VAWA II permitted battered immigrant self-petitioners to remarry during the self-petition process, and allowed divorced victims to file for naturalization. It also created a good-faith exception for battered immigrants who married U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident bigamists.

For battered immigrants in removal proceedings, VAWA II also removed the “extreme hardship” requirement for cancellation of removal. It also allowed a battered immigrant who had committed a crime to maintain “good moral character” if s/he could prove that the crime was connected to the abuse s/he had suffered and s/he not been the prime perpetrator of violence in the relationship.

Perhaps, most importantly, VAWA II created the U nonimmigrant visa to prosecute serious crimes, not limited to domestic violence, against abused non-citizens who are not in lawful immigration status as long as they cooperated with law enforcement. Such crimes include rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, prostitution, kidnapping, or murder, among many others. This allowed non-citizen victims of violence not covered VAWA to gain lawful status and thus, filled an essential gap in VAWA. However, a central criticism of the U-Visa is that it is capped at 10,000 per year and easily reached within the first few months of the fiscal year.

As a response to the criticism of the U-Visa cap, in May 2012, the Senate passed a re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, where it raised the cap on U visas to 15,000. But the House of Representatives passed a separate bill, that omitted the cap increase, eliminated the ability of U-visa holders to apply for lawful permanent residency and presented a slew of new problems for victims. Congress never got around to reconciling the two different versions of VAWA, and hence it failed to issue a final bill to the President for reauthorization of VAWA.

In response to mounting public pressure, Congress reauthorized the VAWA last week. The relevant immigration provisions that made it into the final bill include:

  • Adding “stalking” to the list of crimes covered by the U visa.
  • “Widow penalty” extension – Allowing the surviving minor children of a VAWA self-petitioner to retain the ability to qualify for lawful permanent residence in the event that the qualifying relative passes away after the filing of the application.
  • Child Status Protection – When victims of a qualifying crime, who cooperate in the investigation or prosecution of that crime, file for a U visa that includes their children under 21 years old, the children will not age out during the process. The child will be able to receive a visa alongside the parent even if the child turns 21 before final adjudication.
  • Strengthening the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) to provide vital disclosures regarding any violent criminal histories of the U.S. citizen spouse so that the foreign fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens information they need to protect themselves from entering abusive marriages.
  • Public Charge Bar – Clarifying that a VAWA self-petitioner, a U visa petitioner or holder, or an immigrant who was battered and is deemed a “qualified alien” under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 is not subject to the public charge bar.
  • Clarifying the eligibility of crime and trafficking victims who are T or U Visa holders in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to adjust status after three years continuous presence

Unfortunately, the 2013 version of VAWA reauthorization passed by Congress did not permit a modest increase of U-visa numbers. Additionally, implementation difficulties remain with VAWA. The battered self-petitioner still needs to provide proof that the abuser is or had been either a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident and that the abuser’s loss of citizenship status was somehow due to an incident “related” to the domestic violence. The battered immigrant who has been divorced also finds it difficult to prove that the divorce was connected to the violence or cruelty through the marriage. In many instances, a battered spouse may not possess documentation necessary to prove that the marriage was entered into with good faith. VAWA self-petitioners are also hampered by the stringent good moral character requirements. Additional changes to VAWA provisions are also necessary to assist battered immigrants and non-immigrants with obtaining the legal and economic help necessary to combat.

Despite its drawbacks, VAWA remains a vital tool for victims of violence to escape abusive relationships. Since it was enacted, more than 98,000 people have filed petitions under VAWA, and 75% of these petitions have been approved. It is our hope that Congress will act to address any and all shortcomings remaining with the VAWA and the U-Visa as it takes up comprehensive immigration reform.