Alejandra came to the United States from Venezuela and, after a few months, started dating a U.S. citizen. They had a romantic courtship and married a little after a year. Alejandra couldn’t wait to start a family with her loving new spouse. But soon after they married, his behavior changed. He started criticizing and humiliating her. He became jealous of everything she did and started tracking her whereabouts. Once generous, he started limiting her spending, making her ask for money for basic household expenses. He was cruel and controlling and when she spoke up, he both gaslighted her and threatened to leave her, an outcome which would compromise her path to citizenship in the States.
Alejandra was at a loss. She couldn’t tolerate her husband’s behavior and wanted to move toward separation, but she also couldn’t imagine returning to Venezuela, given her home country’s difficult conditions. She felt trapped in the relationship, believing she had to stick it out in order to remain in the U.S. But what Alejandra didn’t know was that there was potentially another option for her.
One day, after a particularly grueling fight in which her husband had grilled her about her about why she had taken so long at the store, convinced she had sidetracked to meet up with another man, Alejandra got on her computer and started researching if there might be a way for her to petition without her husband’s help. After some time spent online, she came across the Violence Against Women Act and realized that she might have a case.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was enacted by President Clinton in 1994 and helps people of all genders who are victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence can consist of physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, economic abuse, abuse related to immigration status, etc. Spouses (or children or parents) of U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have been abused in the States by these relatives can petition on their own, without the abuser’s knowledge, consent, or participation in the immigration process.
VAWA cases are filed administratively (you don’t have to go to court), and it’s important to have an immigration attorney guiding you through the process. One of the pieces that can significantly strengthen a VAWA case is a psychological evaluation. This evaluation can document signs and symptoms of domestic violence and explore different types of abuse, including problematic dynamics of power and control. This power and control piece is crucial to documenting domestic violence. A defining characteristic of domestic violence is that one partner is able to exert power and control over the other. It is this power imbalance that characterizes the relationship as domestic violence versus two equal-power partners routinely antagonizing each other. The evaluation also explores the impact of such violence on the mental status and psychological functioning of the immigrant. Domestic violence victims often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and more.
At Gatewell, we offer comprehensive immigration evaluations*, including VAWA evaluations. Our VAWA process includes several hours of assessment across different meetings, using both interview and self-report components. We assess for signs and symptoms of abuse, power and control, trauma, depression, anxiety, and more. As trauma specialists, we are particularly attuned to the psychological correlates of trauma, including shame, humiliation, mistrust, and impaired self-esteem. Following the assessment, we are able to provide a detailed, lengthy report, often a critical part of a VAWA case.
With VAWA, immigrants like Alejandra are able to self-petition and find a path to citizenship on their own, apart from the harm and controlling behavior of their citizen (or permanent resident) family member. These cases can offer an immigrant self-determination, freedom, and hope. In Alejandra’s case, petitioning under VAWA allowed her to leave her toxic, controlling relationship and to remain in the United States despite her marital separation.
*We are currently able to complete immigration evaluations in the Miami office or via Zoom for immigrants in the following states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas,California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio , Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.