LOS ANGELES, October 4, 2019 — A group of survivors of violent crimes including rape, sexual assault, and domestic abuse sued the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) today, for failing to process their U visa and employment authorization applications in a timely manner—violating the bureau’s obligation under federal law. The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (LACLJ), and pro-bono counsel from Kirkland & Ellis represent the plaintiffs. All are non-citizen survivors of violent crimes (and their immediate family members) who have helped law enforcement investigate or prosecute those crimes.
Despite the critical assistance provided to local law enforcement, all plaintiffs have waited years for USCIS to process their U visa petitions and applications for work authorization. Some have waited more than four years for a response. All plaintiffs have been unable to secure legitimate work and adequately support themselves and their families. Without a work permit, they are also more susceptible to removal from the United States and retaliation from the same criminals whose actions they reported to law enforcement.
“Reporting crime is often the most difficult step. These applicants come from countries where corruption is commonplace and they cannot rely on law enforcement to protect them. Sadly, USCIS is showing these victims that we will not protect them either,” said LAFLA Senior Attorney Brigit G. Alvarez.
In 2000, Congress created the U visa to encourage undocumented survivors of violent crime to step out of the shadows, cooperate with law enforcement, and ultimately improve public safety. In exchange, the victims—all of whom suffered substantial physical or emotional harm—can potentially gain legal status to remain in the United States along with qualifying family members. According to USCIS, nearly 250,000 U visa applications are pending today.
USCIS limits the number of U visas granted each year; however, applicants placed on its formal waitlist are still eligible to apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). Under federal law, the USCIS must process EAD applications while a U visa petition is pending; for applications filed before January 17, 2017 (like those of the plaintiffs), USCIS must process those EAD applications within 90 days after filing. Many of the plaintiffs filed their applications more than four years ago; yet none of them has received a decision from USCIS.
“Due to USCIS delay, these survivors continue to feel unsafe. They did the difficult work of coming forward and cooperating with law enforcement. Yet years later, they still cannot work lawfully. And they continue live in fear of getting arrested by immigration and separated from their families. Forcing USCIS to do its job is what we owe these brave survivors for making our communities safer,” said LACLJ Directing Attorney Michelle Carey.
The lawsuit challenges the USCIS’ unreasonable delay in processing bona fide U visa applications, which violates federal law. It also calls for the USCIS to determine the plaintiffs’ eligibility for placement on the U visa waitlist, and to process their employment applications in a timely manner.
“Lawsuits are not always the answer, but USCIS continues to ignore the law. In this case, the victims have two choices: Either they wait quietly or they sue. In this era of increased immigration enforcement, they all feel compelled to take action to protect themselves and their families,” added Brigit G. Alvarez.
About Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) seeks to achieve equal justice by providing free legal services to people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.
About Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice
The Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (LACLJ) secures justice for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and empowers them to create their own futures. LACLJ provides free legal services to low-income survivors through a holistic service model that integrates legal representation, supportive services, and community education. Located in East L.A., LACLJ serves clients throughout Los Angeles County with a focus on the immigrant communities of East and Southeast Los Angeles.
About Kirkland & Ellis LLP
Kirkland & Ellis is an international law firm with 2,500 attorneys representing clients in private equity, M&A and other complex corporate transactions, litigation and dispute resolution/arbitration, restructuring, and intellectual property matters. The Firm has no headquarters location, and operates from 15 offices around the world: Beijing, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, Paris, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington, D.C. Kirkland is committed to providing legal services without charge to those who cannot afford counsel, with the goals of improving lives, bettering communities and deepening our attorneys’ professional experience. Kirkland attorneys devoted more than 138,000 hours of free legal service to pro bono clients in 2018.