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US refugee class action

Supporting visa applications for Iraqi and Afghani nationals under threat

On September 20, 2019, a Freshfields team, in partnership with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), won a major victory for Afghans and Iraqis facing mortal danger for helping US forces and who have applied for special immigrant visas (SIVs) to enter the US.

Congress created the SIV program in 2008 for Iraqis and in 2009 for Afghans in order to provide a legal pathway to safety for local allies who have become the target of the Taliban, ISIS, and other anti-US forces. 

Afghans and Iraqis eligible for SIVs include allies who worked for or on behalf of the US government as translators, interpreters, contractors, and engineers, among other roles.

Delays to potentially life-saving applications challenged

With applicants facing mortal danger and many living in hiding, in 2013 Congress mandated that applicants receive a decision on their visas within nine months of submitting their applications. Nevertheless, many applicants have been waiting years for decisions.

A US-based Freshfields team and IRAP commenced a class action lawsuit in 2018, representing a class of SIV applicants – the plaintiffs – on a pro bono basis. The action was brought against the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security, in addition to representatives of these agencies. This case, Allies v. Pompeo, is the first class action brought on behalf of SIV applicants.

In January 2019, the US District Court for the District of Columbia provisionally certified a class of plaintiffs who had not received an adjudication on their SIV applications within the Congressionally mandated nine-month timeline, and simultaneously denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

In September 2019, US District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan granted summary judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor. In her decision, Judge Chutkan held that the delays the applicants experienced, especially given the dangers and risks they endure, were unreasonable.

Judge Chutkan also ordered the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to prepare a plan to adjudicate the pending SIV applications within 30 days of a final ruling on class certification.

The government will be required to submit bimonthly reports on the progress of adjudicating these long-delayed applications.

An important victory

This decision is critical for SIV applicants seeking refuge in the United States and holds defendants accountable to the Congressionally mandated nine-month timetable for adjudicating SIV applications.

“Keeping our promises to Afghans and Iraqis who have risked everything to help us is crucial, and this important decision helps ensure that we fulfill our duty to help our brave allies,” says Freshfields Associate Rebecca Curwin. “As a lawyer, it is incredibly rewarding to work on such an important case.”

Deepa Alagesan, IRAP supervising attorney, said: “We are thrilled that this decision could finally bring relief to these men and women and their families, who have risked everything to support US missions in their home countries and have been forced to wait in limbo for far too long.”

Freshfields Partner Linda Martin underlined the firm’s commitment to making a positive difference within the communities we touch: “I’m incredibly proud of our team’s hard work on behalf of our clients,” she said. 

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