Immigration Options for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence

By Ilana Gelb

Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year, reports the Department of Homeland Security. Even when some of the victims are freed or released, their fate remains uncertain.

Many victims are not given adequate support or rehabilitation services, and some are criminalized as prostitutes. Others are deported. As many trafficking victims come from instability and poverty at home, deportation can perpetuate the root causes of trafficking. For human trafficking victims wishing to remain in the United States, there are options for temporary visas, specific to trafficking victims. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reports that victims of “rape, murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, sexual assault, and many others” may also be eligible for immigration support.

There are two main visas for trafficking victims. There is the T-Visa for victims to remain in the United States to assist with prosecuting traffickers, and the U Visa, which allows victims of certain crimes, including trafficking, to remain in the United States.

According to USCIS, the T-Visa is for nonimmigrant victims of human trafficking who are able to assist in an “investigation or prosecution of human trafficking. Victims of trafficking in the United States, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, or at a point of entry due to trafficking” are eligible. Additionally, one must “comply with any reasonable request from a law enforcement agency for assistance in the investigation,” unless one is unable to assist due to minor status or psychological or physical trauma. Lastly, to be eligible one must demonstrate that he or she would “suffer extreme hardship involving unusual or severe harm if removed form the United States.”

U Visas are given to victims of crimes in the United States who are non-citizens. This visa gives victims of certain crimes temporary legal status in the US. Immigrants with this visa have eligibility to work. The visa can last up to 4 years. Family members can be included in this visa.

If survivors of human trafficking wish to remain in the United States for a longer period of time, they can potentially apply for asylum. To be eligible for asylum, one must be physically present in the United States and have suffered persecution or fear based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  One can also apply for standard citizenship.

Other victims of gender-based violence may be vulnerable to deportation as well if they speak up about the abuse. Victims of domestic violence who are immigrants married to U.S. Citizens may feel unable to leave the relationship due to fear of deportation. Every person in the U.S. is entitled to protection by the police, regardless of immigration status.

It is possible to get a divorce and maintain legal immigration status in the United States in order to leave an abusive home. A victim of domestic violence can apply for legal immigration status for themselves and their children. This application is kept confidential; not even a family member will be told of the application. Female victims of abuse can apply for immigration through self-petitions for legal status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA provides money for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. It sets standards for those convicted. If a woman is at risk of being deported for leaving her abusive husband, she can apply for cancellation of removal under VAWA under the grounds that the relationship was abusive. Additionally, male and female victims of domestic violence can apply for U-nonimmigrant status.

Domestic violence and human trafficking victims have resources to maintain or achieve legal status in the United States. Although there are many other boundaries, victims of gender-based violence are not bound to stay in abusive situations because of immigration uncertainty.

Some organizations that provide support for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence seeking legal immigration status in the United States include:



New York, New York



American Immigration Lawyers Association

Washington, DC



American Bar Association

Chicago, IL and Washington DC



Immigrant Women & Children Project

City Bar Justice Center



Safe Horizon: Immigration Law Project


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