Buried in the headlines during the December 2018-January 2019 government shutdown was the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which is a federal law helping to fund domestic violence shelters, regulate civil and criminal penalties against abusers, and establish community resources for abuse victims. However, what is often lost in the shuffle is that VAWA also grants a potential avenue for immigrants who have been victims of abuse to acquire lawful permanent residence in the United States. As of this writing, VAWA has been extended through February 15, 2019, but if it expires again, it could leave applicants fleeing abuse in the proverbial lurch as funding for legal assistance dries up.
Domestic Violence Is an Immigration Issue
The average person may not connect the dots as to how domestic violence and immigration have anything to do with each other, but in reality, the two are closely intertwined, especially for spouses. It is not uncommon for a foreign national to meet and marry a U.S. citizen, only to have that U.S. citizen abuse or mistreat them, up to and including refusing to help them obtain legal status in the country. Many immigrant spouses, especially women, feel that they have no choice but to remain in abusive marriages, especially if they have U.S. citizen children - often, they are told that if they try to leave, they will be deported and never see their children again.
One might obviously assume that the proper thing to do is immediately seek help from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), but in many cases, especially if the abuse victim is out of legal status and/or cannot prove that abuse has occurred, it can, unfortunately, do more harm than good, especially under this administration. If an abuse victim is undocumented for more than 180 days and less than 1 year, they will be barred from applying for future visas for 3 years; if they remain in the country without status for more than 1 year, that bar extends to 10 years. Very often, abuse victims speak little English. Legal help is needed in order to try and escape, but funds for legal clinics are harder and harder to come by....