Breaking Free
Ellen was trapped in an abusive relationship, afraid of losing her legal status and the life she built here with her 17-year-old daughter. Opening Doors helped Ellen find immigration relief, but she needed to gather strength for the 14-month battle ahead


Married to a man that was emotionally and economically abusive, Ellen had no control over her money and felt as if she had no way of escaping her situation. Because her permanent resident card was conditional upon her marriage to a US citizen, Ellen feared that if she tried to divorce her husband, she would be forced to leave the country with her daughter who was born and raised here.


In order to prevent marriage fraud, the Immigration and Nationality Act does not immediately grant immigrants like Ellen permanent residence after marrying a US citizen. Instead, they are granted a green card on a conditional basisuntil the couple applies for permanent residence jointly. This places abused immigrant women in a vulnerable position because their abuser can refuse to file the petition and then use the uncertain immigration status as a means of control.


Ellen was certain she had no chance of breaking free until she was referred to Opening Doors. Erika Gonzalez, Immigration Legal Services Program Manager, helped Ellen apply for a Battered Spouse Waiver, which eliminates the joint filing requirement and allows Ellen to apply for permanent residence independently. This gave Ellen hope, but her struggle for freedom was not over.


While this waiver offers Ellen a way out of the abusive relationship, Ellen's case took an excruciating fourteen months to complete. Ellen had to prove to Citizenship and Immigration Services officers that she was emotionally subjected to extreme cruelty at the hands of her abuser. This meant recalling and detailing specific incidents of abuse, and describing her own feelings of fear for her and her daughter's safety.


There were other hurdles to overcome. The officers handling Ellen's case did not initially approve her fee waiver because her joint tax returns showed that she had a large income, and her bank checks included both her and her spouses' name. "I had to make sure that they understood this was part of the financial control," says Ms. Gonzalez about her role in process, "Her spouse was only giving her an allowance and she could only take out money with permission."


Despite several obstacles, Ellen remained strong and continued to work closely with Ms. Gonzalez until her case was approved. Through referrals and encouragement from Opening Doors, Ellen sought counseling from local domestic violence agencies that helped her successfully divorce her abuser.