Cheating the System...and Many Hearts, too

Cheating the System...and Many Hearts, too

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Husband wanted. Requirements: Car, job. Must be American citizen.

So read the small ad, published recently in a New Jersey Arab American newspaper, that led Fatima* to her husband, Adnan, according to a sheikh who ministered to both parties.

But, as the groom requirements suggested, this was no ordinary lonely heart.

According to the sheikh, the bride, a Palestinian immigrant, wanted only one thing from her new beau: a green card.

Loveless from the start, the pair’s relationship soon went sour. So instead of filing for his wife’s shiny pass to a stable life in America, Adnan filed for a divorce.

At that point, the sheikh said, Fatima did something shocking: She called the police and falsely claimed her husband had beaten her. Why? She has now filed by herself for a green card under VAWA- the Violence Against Women Act.

VAWA, a wide-ranging anti-violence law passed in 1994, created an immigration provision that allows immigrants being abused, physically or emotionally, by American citizen spouses to self-petition for a green card. It has helped 31,419 immigrants get green cards since 2005, official figures show. Data on VAWA claimants’ nationalities and genders is classified.

But stories of dishonest cases like Fatima’s are fueling calls for USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) to investigate VAWA claims more strictly. On the other hand, immigrant advocates say that worthy VAWA claims are too often denied. With VAWA due to be reauthorized by Congress in 2011, both camps are stepping up their efforts to be heard.

An Easy Pass?

A range of evidence—from police affidavits to clergy and school workers’ testimonies—is accepted to prove domestic abuse in VAWA claims, which are decided at the USCIS Vermont Service Center (VSC) with no in-person interview.

Critics say that the scope of evidence allowed makes VAWA seem like a tantalizingly easy pass to a green card, encouraging immigrants either to falsely accuse their spouses (who are not privy to the VAWA claim) of abuse, or to collude with spouses to spin tales of abuse.

Hanna Aziz, an Iraqi national living in Chicago, for example, was deported in 2007 after an appeals court found her and her husband were in cahoots to make out that he had forced her to lie in previously denied immigration claims, court records show.

And Mohammed Tahar Benaouicha, an Algerian national living in Texas, filed to have a deportation order lifted under VAWA, by saying that he was an abused spouse. But Benaouicha had been convicted in 2005 of abusing his spouse.

John Sampson, a former Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent, believes the actual rate of fraud is higher than USCIS figures—22 cases denied due to fraud in 2009—suggest.

Sampson runs an unofficial advice group, Voices of Immigration Fraud Victims, for American citizens who feel "used" as stepping stones to a green card.

He claims to have seen successful VAWA claims with as little as three affidavits from friends and a temporary restraining order which, unbeknown to the VSC officer, had been dismissed.

“I don’t want to see VAWA overturned; I want to see abuse claims probed more strictly and cases decided by an immigration judge with testimony from both sides,” he said.

A USCIS spokeswoman, Chris Ratinger, would not specify what evidence is or is not allowed, saying that each case is dealt with separately.

New VAWA officers are trained and mentored by experienced officers, and all denials are reviewed by a supervisor, she said.

Many Hurdles

Immigrant advocates note, however, that the discretion VSC officers have to weigh different types of evidence is important to protect the vast majority of cases which involve highly vulnerable immigrants.

Stephanie Love Patterson, associate director of the Chicago Abused Women Coalition, said: “In some instances, especially in the immigrant population, there is a hesitancy to go to the police, so there is not always a paper trail.”

And emotional abuse, she noted, is hard to back up with documents, but nonetheless critical for a person to break free from.

Advocates also note that claiming VAWA is hardly easy: nearly one quarter of all petitions since 2005 have been denied (10,349 denials of 41,813 petitions, or 24%). In 2008, almost half of all petitions were denied (2,156 of 4,346 petitions, or 49%), according to USCIS figures.

Love Patterson said that the cases she has seen were approved only when there was extensive evidence of abuse, including injuries.

Moreover, proving abuse is not the only hurdle that immigrants face.

Gail Pendleton is co-director of ASISTA, a group that advises attorneys and the government on helping immigrant survivors of domestic abuse. She said that proving the underlying marriage is real can be the applicant’s biggest problem.

“An abusive marriage might not look like a “normal” marriage,” to a VSC officer,” said Pendleton. “And the abuser is generally not willing or available to help prove the marriage is real.”

Texan lawyer John Wheat Gibson spoke about a client of his, Blanca. VSC officers apparently believed that she had been beaten by her cocaine-dealing husband, but nonetheless denied her VAWA claim because they thought the marriage was sham.

Talking, and Listening

So what might help ensure VAWA officers approve the right claims? “Communication is very important,” said Pendleton—“between advocates, VSC officers, lawyers and immigrants.”

She blamed bad communication from the VSC under former President George W. Bush’s administration for the almost 50% denial rate in 2008.

Under Obama’s rule, however, there has been a “massive turnaround,” she said.

The head of the VSC appeals office (the Administrative Appeals Office), is taking a special interest in VAWA cases, and is soliciting and listening to ASISTA’s input, she said.

Adnan, meanwhile, is hoping he’d listened—to his instincts. According to the sheikh, Adnan “knew deep down that his new wife didn’t really love him, but convinced himself ‘maybe she’ll love me when she gets the green card.’ Now, he is distraught.”

*This couple’s names have been changed due to the sensitivity of the subject.