Cleary Obtains FOIA Records Revealing USCIS Rushed to Impose New Barriers Resulting in the Improper Rejection of Thousands of U-Visa Petitions

October 22, 2020

As a result of litigation that Cleary Gottlieb filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on behalf of the Urban Justice Center’s Domestic Violence Project (DVP), the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agreed to release internal records revealing the rushed implementation and devastating impact of the agency’s “no-blanks” policy, which purports to empower USCIS to reject U-visa petitions, among other humanitarian immigration applications, solely because they contain blank answer fields.

U-visas are available to immigrant survivors of serious crimes, including domestic violence, who assist law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the crimes committed against them. Throughout 2020, USCIS has utilized the no-blanks policy to reject properly-filed U-visa petitions for immaterial reasons, such as when the “middle name” field in a U-visa petition is left blank because the crime victim has no middle name.

The internal documents reveal that USCIS’s application of the no-blanks policy to U-visa petitions was a “priority” and received “expedited review and clearance.” Under longstanding agency practice, USCIS previously rejected U-visa petitions only when they were missing a signature or page. Although the no-blanks policy drastically altered this practice, the internal documents reveal that USCIS did not provide U-visa petitioners or their representatives any advance notice of the no-blanks policy. Instead, USCIS communicated the no-blanks policy solely by posting an “alert box” on the U-visa petition website on December 30, 2019 – the very same day the policy purportedly took effect. By January 17, 2020, USCIS had utilized the no-blanks policy to reject approximately 98% of filed U-visa petitions. By July 2020, the no-blanks policy had resulted in USCIS’s rejection of nearly 12,000 U-visa petitions filed by cooperating crime victims.

Cleary filed the FOIA litigation in May 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York after USCIS failed to timely respond to DVP’s request for records pertaining to the no-blanks policy. The parties settled the matter in October 2020, resulting in USCIS’s production of over 300 responsive pages.