Are U.S. Spouses 22 Times More Abusive than Nonimmigrant Ones?

Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Numbers Raise Eyebrows

By David North on September 4, 2017

Are U.S. citizen and green card spouses 22 times more beastly to their spouses than spouses in a nonimmigrant worker population?

Are the guys (they are usually males) who have grown up here, in a society where spousal abuse is against the law, much more likely to abuse their spouses than those from nations such as India where such abuse is often tolerated, and sometimes accepted by the law?

There is an obscure set of Department of Homeland Security data that suggests that the answer is "yes", that the ratio of abuse is about 22 times greater among the Americans than among the identified groups of alien workers in the United States.

Let's look at the numbers first, and then at the reason why they are so out of sync with expectations. DHS data on this point can best be explained by how DHS handles alien spouse abuse, or maybe that should be "abuse", cases.

There are four populations of interest. A) abused spouses of four classes of nonimmigrant workers; B) the whole population of these nonimmigrant workers; C) "abused" spouses of citizens and green card holders; and D) U.S. residents (citizens and green card holders) over the age of 21, the group from which the abusers are drawn. Here are the numbers for the period 2012-2017:

  1. Abused spouses of the four classes of nonimmigrants: 4
  2. Their potential abusers (CIS estimate): 1,600,000
  3. Abused spouses of citizens and green card holders: 12,038
  4. Their potential abusers (Census data) 221,000,000

The resulting ratios for that period:

  • Abuse by nonimmigrants: 1 to 400,000
  • Abuse by U.S. residents: 1 to 18,417

The sources of these data and estimates are described in the Methods section below.

Before we explore the subject — why Americans seem to be such brutes — we should describe the two "abusing" populations more precisely.

The nonimmigrants are here on A, E, G, and H visas; these then are largely college grads, as A is for diplomats, E is for treaty traders and investors, G is for international civil servants, and H is for nonimmigrant workers. Most of these are in the H-1B class, probably in the neighborhood of 900,000 and most of those (probably 70 percent or so) come from India, where spouse abuse is rampant and de facto tolerated.

The citizen/green card population is everyone over the age of 21, both male and female, native-born and foreign-born, according to recent census data. This population has a much wider range in terms of education and income than the middle-class and sometimes upper-middle-class migrants in the four nonimmigrant groupings.

Thus there is a cultural bias toward accepting abuse among many of the nonimmigrants, even though it is an elite group compared to those from America, where there are strong cultural pressures against abuse, but where the level of education is, on average, lower. Do these conflicting forces cancel out? Not at all. Americans, by the DHS measure we are about to describe, appear to be 21.73 (rounded to 22) times as abusive as the aliens. This is hard to believe, but stay with me.

The incidence-of-abuse indicator (not identified by DHS as such) can be found in a routine DHS statistical report titled "Number of Approved Employment Authorization Documents by Classification and Statutory Authority, October 1, 2012-June 29, 2017".

The DHS report counts people, largely women, who have, while still in nonimmigrant or illegal status, filed for the EAD (a work permit) and have done so saying that they have been abused by their spouses. The four nonimmigrant classes, over a period of six years, have produced no applicants among the diplomatic spouses, one each among the investors and the H categories, and two among the international civil servants. Presumably all four were in nonimmigrant status.

Then there are the 12,038 who are filing claims against citizen or green card spouses. DHS labels them "VAWA self-petitioners", with the initials standing for the Violence Against Women Act, which rewards illegal aliens and nonimmigrants who report spousal abuse with green cards. Since no one in the United States is willing to petition for their presence here, they become, in the soft terminology of the immigration business, "self-petitioners".

The key difference here is that while the four nonimmigrants can secure the right to work in the United States, this does not lead to green card status; on the other hand, all of the 12,038, many of whom are probably in illegal status, can secure the EAD while they are on the path to green cards. In many, probably most, cases the accusation of abuse is the quickest way for them to become permanent resident aliens.

Meanwhile, as my colleague Dan Cadman and I have pointed out from time to time, the Department of Homeland Security never pays attention to U.S. residents who object to the charges levied by the alien spouses that their American spouses have abused them (see here and here). There is no quasi-judicial process, no review at all; the self-petitions are routinely approved, and the alien, abused or not, gets a green card.

We at CIS and other organizations keep getting long, detailed, and well-documented accounts from Americans who have run into this problem. It is not only heart-breaking for them, it is often a financial disaster as the alien spouses push all sort of legal buttons, sometimes supported by federally financed advocacy groups, while the citizens have no organizations supporting their cases. Citizens seeking to deny their ex-spouses green cards routinely lose the battle.

A least two congressional committees are interested in this problem, and one of them, as we reported earlier, held a hearing on the subject.

So, to return to the initial question, we suspect that the numbers reported by DHS reflect more on how that organization handles these matters than on how Americans treat their alien spouses. I hasten to add that in these 12,000 or so cases there must be some that relate to genuine abuse by citizens, but I suspect they are the exception, perhaps a significant exception, but not the rule.


The USCIS statistical report can be seen here. It is one of two parallel and non-overlapping tabulations of the huge and growing EAD population described in an earlier CIS blog post, which showed a total of close to 1.9 million EADs granted in FY 2016. There are 58 different subsets in the EAD population, and the abused spouses (although there are five subsets of them) constitute only a tiny portion of the EAD alien worker total.

The USCIS report is the data source for populations A and C shown earlier. In our current tabulation, we have extrapolated from nine months of data to produce a 12-month estimate for FY 2017. (There were zero additions to the population of abused spouses of nonimmigrants in the first nine months of FY 2017, but 133 percent of zero is still zero, the total we are using for this year for the nonimmigrants.)

The estimate for population B is based on several assumptions and some estimates based on DHS admissions data. As to the H nonimmigrant workers, while H-1Bs often bring their spouses to this country (as H-4 nonimmigrants), workers in the H-1A (farm work) and H2-B (unskilled non-ag work) classes rarely do, so we are excluding the last two categories completely.

We are using an estimate of 900,000 H-1B workers based on an updated 2011 CIS estimate of 650,000 H-1B workers.

With the other three nonimmigrant populations, we assume that diplomats on A visas and international civil servants (G visas) travel through our ports of entry at least twice a year, and that treaty investors and traders, who are essentially U.S.-based business executives, leave the nation only once a year. Applying those assumptions to rounded DHS admissions data for these three classes, we get 200,000 in the A category, 50,000 in the G category, and 225,000 for those in E, for a total of 700,000; this plus the 900,000 in the H grouping produces a grand total for the four classes of 1,600,000. Admissions data for 2015 are taken from Table 25 in the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics which can be seen here.

Population D is a rounded Census Bureau estimate of residents of the United States over the age of 21 in 2010, based on a Census publication that can be found here.