Suppose you are being physically abused or sexually assaulted by someone in your family. Or suppose your children are being abused.

And then suppose you are an immigrant,  and your abuser is either a United States citizen or has permanent resident (green card) status. Your abuser might be your spouse, your parent or your child.

What can you do? How can you protect yourself? If you leave your abuser, how can you live? Will you lose your immigration status?

Your rights

If you or your children are in an abusive relationship with your sponsor, you do have options. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provides the means for battered or abused spouses and children who are dependent immigrants to self-petition for the right to stay in the United States legally apart from the abuser.

Abuse isn’t considered just to be physical violence. You can also file for protection if you have been financially, mentally or sexually abused.

Non-citizen women may fear to report abuse to police or authorities for fear that they will be deported and separated from their families. In fact this provides a tool for abusers to silence their victims. But the United States Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act to allow battered and abused spouses or children to self-petition for lawful permanent residency.

The VAWA Act allows abused immigrants to file for benefits without the abuser’s knowledge or assistance. You do not need to have a police report to file. The VAWA Act also applies to men, incidentally.

Furthermore, you can take immediate action. To prevent marriage fraud, immigration law ordinarily requires applicants to wait two years before being granted legal residence status. But the Immigration Reform Act of 1990 created the “battered spouse waiver” which allows victims of domestic violence to apply to remove the conditional status without assistance from their abusive spouses or having to stay in the abusive relationship for two years. The victim must provide proof of battering or extreme cruelty and the validity of the marriage.

How to find a shelter

If you are feeling unsafe, you should leave the home. Find a local women’s shelter and other help by going online to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at You can get advice from that hotline without saying a word, by using online chat. You can also call the hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TDD).

Go over your plan with the person counseling you. You need to make sure that the shelter has room for you and for your children, and that it is the right kind of shelter for you.

What does it cost to stay at a shelter?

Support at a women’s shelter is generally free or low-cost. If you need emergency transportation to get to shelter, a shelter can usually provide that as well. Shelters limit the time you can stay but then help you to find transitional housing.

Who will know where I am?

No one! Shelter addresses are generally confidential information, and you will likely be asked to keep your location secret.

In addition, your application for assistance is confidential and no one, including an abuser, crime perpetrator or family member, will be told that you applied.

What should I take with me?

Make a plan for how and where you will escape quickly. You may request a police escort or stand-by when you leave.  Advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help you come up with a personalized safety plan for leaving.

If you have to leave in a hurry, use the following list of items as a guide to what you need to bring with you:


Driver’s license, birth certificate and children’s birth certificates, social security cards, financial information, money and/or credit cards in your name, checking and/or savings account books.

Practical needs

Medications, extra set of house and car keys, valuable jewelry, address book, emergency money, prepaid cell phone, sentimental items, several changes of clothing.

Emergency numbers

Police or sheriff’s department, domestic violence program or shelter, number of friends and relatives, doctor’s office, hospital, county or district attorney’s office.

Legal papers

Protective order, copies of lease or rental agreements or deed to your home, car registration & insurance, health and life insurance papers, medical records, school records, work permits/green card/visa, passport, divorce & custody papers, marriage license.

Getting to a safe haven is the most important thing that you can do for yourself and your family when you are a domestic violence victim. Immigrants have rights. Take steps to plan for your safety.

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