Pro Bono News: Navigating a VAWA Self-Petition

13 Jul 2009
In September 2008, Shearman & Sterling began working with the Tahirih Justice Center to help a client complete a VAWA self-petition. Litigation associates Sean Arthurs and Melissa Colangelo are working on the matter under the supervision of counsel Neil Koslowe.

Tell us a little bit about your client.
Melissa: Our client met a US citizen in Portugal, where she is from. They dated for over three years and were ultimately married in the United States. Like many victims of domestic violence, looking back she sees things that may have been indicators of what was to follow, but at the time she was able to explain them away. The progression of abuse was very gradual. It began with control, as many situations like this often do: he wanted her to work so she could contribute financially, but was unwilling to let her leave the house without him; she wanted to continue her education and better her English so she would have more job opportunities, but he forbade it. Eventually the abuse became physical.

Why was she seeking a VAWA self-petition versus other routes to citizenship?
Sean: In a typical petition for immigration status submitted by a citizen and immigrant couple, there is a waiting period followed by a series of interviews that both the husband and wife must attend in order for the noncitizen to obtain permanent lawful status in this country. With the VAWA self-petition, abuse victims don’t have to rely on the abuser – the US citizen – to attend the interview or otherwise sponsor them. In fact, the parameters of the self-petition specify that nothing in it can be shared with the abuser. Ideally, the victim should be able to go through the process start-to-finish without the abuser ever knowing.

Melissa: Also, U visas and T visas have different eligibility requirements. U visas are designed for victims of crime who aid the police or prosecutor in bringing a case against the perpetrators of the crime. T visas are for trafficking victims. The VAWA self-petition, on the other hand, is available to an abuse victim who is married to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.

What are some of the biggest challenges of the self-petition process?
Sean: In some ways “self-petition” is a bit of a misnomer, because it’s often very difficult for the victim to gather the required documentation – either because it’s not available in this country or because the abuser holds it. Also, another requirement is that you build a case that shows the marriage was entered into in good faith and not simply to obtain lawful status in this country. This means she (and almost all self-petitioners are female) must rely on statements from family and friends, pictures and stories from the courtship period, and whatever documents the victim may be able to locate.

Melissa: The most significant part of the paperwork that we will be submitting to immigration services is the “Declaration,” which is the client’s story in her own words. She has to relate the entire story of their relationship, through the abuse she experienced. It is a difficult story for her to tell, yet we have to be sure it addresses certain legal factors.

Where does the case currently stand?
Sean: Right now, our client is working on the declaration Melissa just talked about. Once that’s completed, we will have a few more meetings with the client to complete the required immigration forms and to gather all the necessary documents. Tahirih then provides feedback on the application packet. After that, it will go to the processing center in Vermont.

How was this case different from what you experience in your daily work?
Sean: It’s a very different type of client relationship. Communicating with our client and scheduling meetings takes on a whole new dimension. We need to be sure our client has childcare and that she can get to and from the meeting in daylight to ensure her safety. Her cell phone number changes frequently and she doesn’t always have internet access.

What was it like working with Tahirih?
Sean: Tahirih has a very holistic approach to serving its clients. Our client will reach out to us with questions regarding matters beyond the scope of the legal case, such as applying for a driver’s license or securing public benefits for her son. And what’s great about working with Tahirih is that they have social workers and other staff to whom we can refer her, so we are able to help our client, without going beyond our area of expertise.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of this work?
Melissa: As a first year, I felt quite privileged to be sitting across the table from this client and to have the opportunity to hear her story. I think this is an essential skill for any lawyer: our first job is to be good listeners. Of course we have to develop a legal strategy and plan, but first we have to just stop and listen. In some moments, you can’t even take notes, because of the intensity of what she is sharing and how vulnerable she is making herself to you. It pushes you outside your comfort zone, but in that place, there is a tremendous opportunity to make a significant difference in this person’s life.
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