VAWA and VISA-U: Immigration relief programs for victims of domestic violence

This article was produced as a project for the 2021 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund at USC's Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

Other stories by Francisco Castro include:

REPORTAJE: Violencia doméstica se agudiza en la pandemia entre mujeres inmigrantes

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[Click Here For Spanish Version]

Marcela Guzman still remembers the first time she was hit by her first husband back in Mexico.

It was his birthday and didn’t like the way she served him the food.

“He grabbed me by the hand in front of his family and he hit me,” remembers Guzman, still shaken by the memory.

“After that, it didn’t stop.”

But for a long time she didn’t see it as abuse.

Her father beat her mother and many of her friends also lived in similar circumstances.

“I felt that if he didn’t beat me, he didn’t love me,” says the 54-year-old woman who married at the young age of 17.

And then he would show up with chocolates and Mariachi after severe beatings.

“I thought, ‘he’s not that bad.’ You start justifying it,” she says. 

She lived that way for five years until one day when he kicked her out of the house. But he took custody of their first son and for several years would not let him see him.

Guzman says it was a toxic relationship and even while separated he looked to her for sex. She got pregnant with her second son and decided to come to the U.S. to find peace.She overstayed her visa and was essentially undocumented.

Sometime later she thought she had found a better partner in her second husband, who never laid a hand on her, but was controlling and would belittle her and threaten her with deportation.

“I had to give him my entire check because he would tell me ‘you’re stupid. I can take care of your money,’” she says.

He also controlled the clothes she wore, the food they ate and even her behavior.

Guzman initially thought he behaved this way because of his culture—he is from Middle Eastern descent—but then the name calling escalated and threats escalated.

“He would tell me ‘I’m going to call immigration’ or ‘you’re only here because of me,” Guzman says.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) reports 65% of immigrant victims of domestic violence report some form of immigration related abuse. Also, at least 41% of survivors don’t seek help because they fear their undocumented status will be uncovered or exploited in the legal process. 

“I feared my son would pay for this,” says the mother.

Seven years after their marriage they separated. Some six months later she started going out with another person and this enraged her husband who showed up one night under the influence of drugs and threatened to kill her.

She managed to calm him and the day after went to the police to report the incident. She says the police told her they could do nothing because there was no weapon or aggression.

She was on her way home when her husband began to follow her and when she got to her house blocked her car. Guzman, who feared for her life, was talking on the phone with a friend who called 9-1-1.

By pure luck, the call reached the police officer she had just talked to and police rushed to the scene.

In the meantime, her husband pulled her out of her car and tried to get her into his car but let her go when he saw the police approaching.

“I was in shock. I began to tremble and vomit. I knew I was in danger,” Guzman says.

She had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the hospital. After her release, she was told to get a protective order against her husband and that she needed to get therapy to make it valid.


She did it and her therapist helped her to apply for immigration relief though the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, the measure allows survivors of domestic violence to gain lawful permanent residence, whether or not they entered the U.S. legally, provided the abuser was a citizen spouse, parent or child, or a lawful permanent resident spouse or parent.

Survivors can also benefit from U-Visas, which are “an incentive to report crimes and cooperate with the prosecution of that crime,” explains Sara Behmerwohld, Legal Advocacy Program Manager for Irvine-based Human Options, which offers services to victims of domestic violence,

Both offer a work permit, some access to public benefits and a path to citizenship for the victim as well as their minor children.

Behmerwohld says applications for immigration relief under VAWA and U-Visas “declined pretty rapidly and precipitously” under the Trump Administration because of the general fear among undocumented immigrants.

According to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS), VAWA petitions steadily increased from 9,400 in Fiscal Year 2016, 11,400 in FY 2017, 12,800 in FY 2018, 13,900 in FY 2019 and 14,900 in FY 2020. 

However, U-Visa petitions did drop from a high of 61,700 in Fiscal Year 2017 to a low of 36,200 in Fiscal Year 2020. 

That was partly due to the change in consequences for applicants.

“Before, if you applied for a U-Visa and were unsuccessful nothing happened. But under the Trump Administration if you submitted an application and it failed, you were recommended for removal,” explains the lawyer.

Things have changed under the Biden Administration, but there is no guarantee a VAWA or U-Visa application is going to be successful.

Victims, says Behmerwohld, must show proof of the abuse, which must be backed up by police reports or any other contact with authorities, as well as photos, videos or anything else the victims can bring to the table. In the case of Guzman, she produced phone calls she recorded where her ex-husband threatened to kill her.

“That was all they needed to hear,” she says.

The process is also lengthy.

It can take from six months to five years for a victim to get a work authorization and the country extends only 10,000 U-Visas per year. There are also 200,000 people waiting for relief. 

But the wait is worthwhile

Guzman just became a U.S. citizen and the benefit also extended to her 28-year-old son.

“I wanted to protect my son,” she says.

After much therapy Guzman says “I have learned to love myself.”

Still, the violent experiences from two marriages have left her with some emotional scars.

“I’m still in fear,” she admits.

That’s why she literally runs from any semblance of a relationship or intimacy.

“I can go out on a date, but as soon as a flower comes out (or any sign of something more meaningful) you won’t see me again,” she says. “I guess is the fear of losing my freedom, that someone will yell at me or hit me.”

And she can’t watch a telenovela or movie where women are hit or abused “because I start to shake and get nauseous,” she notes.

“These are (emotional) wounds that are very deep, very strong,” Guzman says.

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund


Human Options

(949) 737-5242

[This story was originally published by Excélsior California.]

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