In 1994, Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which provided federal funding for the investigation and prosecution of acts of violence against women.   The Act also contained provisions allowing legal-immigrant battered women, and children of such relationships, to petition for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status, independently of their abusive spouse/parent.  The Act was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, and is now up for a third renewal, having expired in 2011.
The idea behind the immigration provisions of the Act is to allow battered women and children legally residing in the US to petition for LPR status, without having to contact or rely on their allegedly abusive spouse/parent (who might be uncooperative or worse).  Under the Act, a battered spouse or a child of an abusive US citizen/permanent resident must typically demonstrate the following:

    • She is in a bona fide marriage with the US citizen or permanent resident, or the marriage was terminated by her spouse’s death or divorce (related to the abuse) within the 2 years prior to filing (obviously not applicable to the child)
    • Actual physical or mental abuse by the US spouse/parent
    • Shared residence with the abusive US spouse/parent
    • Evidence of the immigrant’s “good moral character” (applies to a child if he/she is over the age of 14)

There are various concerns with the VAWA, expressed by those who would like to expand its immigration coverage, as well as by those who wish to limit these provisions.  For those wishing to expand the VAWA, one main concern is the unspecified timeframe.  Generally, work authorization is conditional upon a successful VAWA application, and thus, during the application process, a battered spouse is usually ineligible for employment.  Also, it can be difficult for a battered spouse to prove both that her marriage was in good faith, and to demonstrate her good moral character.
Those who wish to limit the VAWA’s application argue that it merely provides another mechanism for asylum, and that it creates yet another incentive for fraudulent marriage arrangements.  There is little data on the percentage of sham immigration marriages, and even less data on sham VAWA applications.
There are currently two versions of a VAWA renewal bill in Congress.  The motivation behind the VAWA is clearly well-intentioned, and it will be interesting to see what happens over the next several months.