DETROIT, December 20, 2023: A group of noncitizens who have waited years for an initial review of their U visa applications is suing the U.S. government for failing to properly implement congressionally mandated processes which were created to alleviate the most acute harms faced by people trapped in growing backlogs.
The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), and Winston & Strawn LLP filed the lawsuit on behalf of eight plaintiffs. The plaintiffs are survivors of crime who assisted law enforcement, filed U visa applications more than two years ago, and are still awaiting initial bona fide determinations which would provide them access to work authorization and protection from deportation while they wait in years-long backlogs for their cases to be fully considered.
“The main trauma that I have is that for some reason they could deport me, separate me from my family. My son is here and my wife is pregnant,” said Felipe Emmanuel Dzib Cohuo, a plaintiff in the case who has waited more than three years for his application to be adjudicated. “I don’t feel free to board an airplane or a train, or walk freely on the street without being worried and alert all the time that there might be an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officer because that’s my biggest fear.”
Congress created the U visa in 2000, as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, to provide a pathway to permanent status for noncitizen survivors who suffer substantial physical or mental harm as a result of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, or other qualifying crimes and for whom a law enforcement officer certifies that they were helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. The program was intended to allow noncitizens to safely report crimes and seek help from law enforcement without fearing they might be deported.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not begin processing U visa applications until 2009, and once that processing began the time people waited to receive interim benefits grew exponentially. In 2021, USCIS finally implemented a 2008 statute allowing for streamlined initial reviews of U-visa applications, but in the two and a half years since, the waiting time for interim benefits has only grown. People like Felipe now face a wait of roughly five years to be considered for interim relief—a wait that undermines the purpose of the U visa.
“These continuing delays have eviscerated the purposes of the U visa and the critical protections Congress established more than 20 years ago to allow immigrant survivors to come forward and assist in the investigation and prosecution of crimes,” said Mark Fleming, associate director of litigation at NIJC. “Not only have these delays trapped the plaintiffs in limbo, without the ability to find lawful employment or plan for their long-term futures in the United States, they also have undermined an important tool for law enforcement agencies across the country seeking to build trust with immigrant communities.”
The complaint in B.L.R. v. Department of Homeland Security, filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, asks the court to hold these delays unreasonable under the Administrative Procedure Act.
“Congress created the U visa to support and protect our most vulnerable fellow community members,” said Meredith Luneack, staff attorney at MIRC. “The prohibitive delays in processing U visas leave survivors of violence and abuse in legal limbo for years. Our clients have done what USCIS asked of them to receive a U visa; they reported their abusers and they cooperated with police. It is USCIS’ turn to make good on their commitment to our clients, and grant them the status and stability they so desperately need.”
“Winston is pleased to partner with NIJC and MIRC on this very important case,” said Kurt Mathas, litigation partner at Winston & Strawn. “Our clients and the class of individuals that they represent were the victims of serious crimes who assisted law enforcement and rightfully applied for U visas. The Defendants’ failure to timely adjudicate U visa petitions and provide interim relief, and the privileges and protections that come with it, have needlessly harmed those whom U visas were designed to protect.”
The lead plaintiff in the case is B.L.R., a woman who brought charges against her husband for years of physical and emotional abuse. Thanks to her cooperation in the case, her husband pled guilty. B.L.R. applied for a U visa in October 2021 but has yet to receive a bona fide determination from USCIS, meaning that she cannot legally work. Without work, she risks falling into economic dependency on the husband who abused her.
Mr. Dzib Cohuo applied for a U visa after a former roommate assaulted him and threatened his life. That crime initially left Mr. Dzib Cohuo, his wife, and young son without stable housing. Although they have since found shelter, their situation remains extremely precarious because Mr. Dzib Cohuo lacks work authorization. Although the U visa was intended to help immigrants feel safe to interact with law enforcement, without protection from deportation, Mr. Dzib Cohuo continues to experience severe anxiety any time he sees a law enforcement officer.
National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. NIJC provides direct legal services to and advocates for these populations through policy reform, impact litigation, and public education. Since its founding three decades ago, NIJC has been unique in blending individual client advocacy with broad-based systemic change. immigrantjustice.org
Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) is a statewide legal resource center for Michigan’s immigrant communities that works to build a thriving Michigan where immigrant communities experience equity and belonging. MIRC’s work is rooted in three pillars: direct legal services, systemic advocacy, and community engagement and education. michiganimmigrant.org
Winston & Strawn LLP is a distinguished global law firm with nearly 1000 attorneys in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. winston.com