What to Know
A law designed to protect immigrant women from domestic violence, is being assailed by critics as a fast track to getting citizenship
A businessman from Long Island thought he was in love with a woman from Russia he met on the internet, but things changed after the wedding
She filed a Violence Against Women Act or VAWA claim, claiming he abused her, but it may have been done just to get citizenship faster
A law that was designed to protect immigrant women from domestic violence, is being assailed by critics as a fast track to getting citizenship. The NBC New York I-team sat down with one such person, who will be referred to as Bill in order to protect his identity.
“While we were dating, she was the perfect girlfriend,” said Bill on a recent afternoon. “After we got engaged, she was the perfect fiancé.”
Bill, a businessman from Long Island, says he thought he was in love with a woman from Russia whom he met on the internet. But things changed quickly right after their wedding.
“She was mean, emotionally abusive, and neglectful,” recalled Bill.
Sharing a young child together, Bill says he wanted to make the marriage work. That was until he was arrested and banned from contact with their child.
Bill says his ex-wife accused him of domestic abuse and documented what he says were self-inflicted injuries. Even though the charges were later dropped, Bill says she got what she wanted.
He learned through legal action that his ex-wife filed a Violence Against Women Act or VAWA claim, saying Bill abused her. He says she did this to earn citizenship.
An immigrant claiming protection under VAWA is entitled to legal assistance, benefits and a faster track to permanent residence in the U.S. Bill says the VAWA petition was full of false allegations including beatings and even rapes. When Bill won custody of their child, an appeals court judge referenced “false charges of physical abuse against the father” and that “all family court petitions, when filed, were withdrawn or dismissed.”
“This is a way to immigrate by putting an innocent person in jail for a crime he did not commit,” Bill told the I-team.
John Sampson, who has spent 27 years working as an INS and ICE agent is not surprised.
“It’s a dirty little secret,” says Sampson.
In the past ten years, Sampson says about 1500 Americans have contacted his consulting firm saying they're victims of marriage fraud.
“I've had engineers, doctors, lawyers, dentists you name it," said Sampson. “I tell them, you weren’t stupid, you were in love.”
Sampson says VAWA fraud in one-on-one cases is almost never pursued. Investigators have to treat the American “as a prohibited source of information,” if their spouse claims abuse. To protect the immigrant's safety, investigators can’t even tell the American their spouse filed a VAWA claim.
“It's ludicrous,” says Sampson. “It denies the fundamental constitutional rights that we as Americans expect."
But Keith Scott, director of education at the Safe Center Long Island, an agency that assists domestic violence victims, says VAWA saves lives.
“VAWA gives them an out if they are abused,” said Scott who also says they help clients apply for VAWA.
“We don’t coach anyone or tell anyone what to do,” said Scott. “We are here to lend a hand and help support victims of abuse. Applications aren’t being approved just from accusations. There needs to be supporting documentation.”
Each month, the Safe Center files three to four VAWA applications a month and roughly 90 percent are approved. Nationwide, that percentage is lower. Since 2010, the average approval rate is about 71 percent.
Bill continues to be critical of the VAWA application process because of his own experience. “The problem is they give out these things with a very low standard of proof,” says Bill. “You got the guy arrested, the fact that he was acquitted, it doesn’t matter to them.” Bill also says he tried to report his wife’s false claims to authorities, but was unsuccessful.
NBC New York reached out to the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), the agency that processes VAWA applications for a response, but a spokesman says they can’t comment on specific cases.