We file between 15 and 20 VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) cases every year, which is about 1% of the total VAWA cases filed each year with USCIS. For our firm with just one attorney, that’s a pretty significant number of VAWA cases, I think. I’ve spoken at conferences around United States on VAWA protections for immigrant surivors. I’ve written articles about VAWA. I’ve been on the national AILA VAWA, T, and U committee for several years. I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of VAWA and the policies and laws that surround it.

I haven’t won every case, but in my 13 years of practice, I can count on one hand the number of VAWA cases that were denied. Then, this month, I received two denials. What on earth?? I read through the denials that only gave a short paragraph on why they were denying the case. I read through our submissions that were over 100 pages long. I also contacted other advocates to get their opinion to see if I was being unrealistic in assessing these cases. What was I missing?

The truth is, I don’t think I’m missing anything. USCIS has been on a major hiring frenzy to help them adjudicate more cases (presumably faster). With any new job, there has to be time to train and I feel like these denials were written by two very new officers.

One denial talked about a lack of co-mingled finances of the couple as a reason for doubting the validity of the marriage. Anyone who works with domestic violence survivors knows that abusers frequently deny their spouse access to bank accounts – this is a form of abuse. The denial letter says that the photographs submitted show the couple at the same place at the same time, but it doesn’t show that it was a “real” relationship. I’m curious to know exactly what kinds of photos would be accepted, then (rhetorical question because I don’t want to see bedroom photos!).

Both denials also completely dismiss the statements that the survivors wrote. The statements are vulnerable, they talk about how they fell in love, how their spouse’s behavior changed, how they became afraid. Yet, the denials say that without corroborating evidence, they can’t give the statements much weight. This goes directly against USCIS policy which says “any credible evidence” must be considered when making a decision. The standard for VAWA is different than a traditional marriage case because USCIS (at some point) understood that survivors often flee abusive relationships without joint documents or that the abuser kept the spouse’s name off of everything as a way to control and manipulate.

The officers who wrote the denials have a clear bias against our clients – two black women. They ignored the evidence presented and disregarded their credible testimony. I am fired up and ready to writing a scathing appeal on these cases, aiming to educate the officer about what VAWA is, what the standards are, and what the law is. I just wish my clients didn’t have to live through this roller coaster.