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Law shields immigrants from spousal violence, but hurts innocent spouses

A federal statute intended to protect victims of abuse may be misused by noncitizen spouses resulting in false domestic-abuse charges.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. So goes the old saying, which applies to a federal-law provision passed to protect immigrant spouses faced with abusive husbands or wives.

Violence Against Women Act

In 1994, President Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act, known as VAWA, to prevent and address sexual assault, rape, stalking and domestic violence. The bill will expire after September 30, 2018, unless Congress reauthorizes it, which many in Congress expect to happen.

Advocacy organizations laud VAWA as having had overall a positive impact on prevention, prosecution and support for victims of sexual violence. But one provision that was meant to protect domestically battered noncitizen spouses has unintentionally ended up causing another problem: false accusations of domestic violence.

Self-petitions for domestic-violence victims

A VAWA regulation provides that the spouse of a citizen or lawful permanent resident, LPR for short, may file a self-petition for immediate relative or preference immigrant if the citizen or LPR spouse has battered or perpetrated extreme cruelty on the petitioner spouse. In short, the petition may prevent deportation and put the petitioner on track for lawful work status or a green card.

The petitioner must have exhibited good moral character for the last three years and have married in good faith. In addition, potential deportation must result in extreme hardship.

On its face and when used as intended, the self-petitioning process provides immigration relief to battered immigrant spouses. This is particularly compassionate because of the phenomenon of immigrant spouses staying in abusive relationships so that they do not lose their right to stay in the country by virtue of being married to citizens or LPRs. That is the reason for the self-petition process – so they can get out of abusive relationships without putting themselves at risk of deportation.

Misuse of self-petitions

However, immigrant spouses sometimes use the provision to falsely accuse their citizen or LPR spouses of abuse, violence or cruelty to achieve improved immigration status. In fact, this abuse of VAWA may be the plan of some immigrant spouses from the very beginning by targeting potential spouses to marry for just this reason.

An innocent spouse accused of domestic assault could face a multitude of negative repercussions:

  • Jeopardy of parental rights, child custody or visitation
  • Criminal domestic violence charges
  • Jail time
  • Harm to reputation and relationships
  • Legal costs
  • Job loss and impaired earning capacity
  • Threat to professional licenses
  • Loss of immigration status, including deportation
  • Criminal record

Seek legal representation

If your noncitizen spouse has slapped you with false allegations of abuse or cruelty, it is imperative that you get a criminal defense attorney with immigration law experience as soon as possible to protect your rights, freedom, reputation and immigration status.

The lawyers at Yannetti Criminal Defense Law Firm with offices in Boston, Salem and Dedham defend people throughout the state of Massachusetts facing false accusations of domestic violence because of VAWA.

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