New York, NY – Today, the Urban Justice Center’s Domestic Violence Project (DVP) released internal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) records revealing the rushed implementation and devastating impact of USCIS’s “no-blanks” policy, which purports to empower USCIS to reject U-visa petitions, among other 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. Over the past nine months, USCIS has utilized the no-blanks policy to reject properly-filed U-visa petitions for trivial and nonsensical 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, which DVP obtained through FOIA litigation filed by pro bono counsel at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP (Cleary Gottlieb), 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.
“The no-blanks policy placed yet another hurdle in the path of vulnerable survivors of crimes who seek to stabilize their lives,” said Joy Ziegeweid, DVP’s Supervising Immigration Attorney. “We look forward to partnering with other advocates to use the information gained in the FOIA litigation to challenge this unnecessary and cruel policy.”
“The no-blanks policy serves no discernable purpose other than to allow USCIS to reject properly-filed U-visa petitions,” said Kyle Dandelet, the Pro Bono Immigration Attorney at Cleary Gottlieb. “USCIS’s implementation of this policy directly undermines Congress’s reason for creating U-visas in the first place – to protect undocumented crime victims who come forward to help law enforcement at the risk of deportation.”
Cleary Gottlieb filed the FOIA litigation 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. A copy of the complaint and USCIS’s internal documents are available below, and a practice advisory is forthcoming.
We have made available a copy of the complaint filed in federal court following USCIS’s failure to respond to our initial FOIA request for documents related to USCIS’s policy of rejecting U visa applications with blank spaces. Also available below are documents we received from USCIS in the course of litigation.