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US refugee class action

Supporting visa applications for Iraqi and Afghani nationals under threat

Since 2018, a Freshfields team, in partnership with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), has been fighting for the swift processing of visa applications for Afghans and Iraqis facing mortal danger for helping US forces and who have applied for special immigrant visas (SIVs) to enter the US. Along the way they have scored major victories for these allies.

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. Blinken, 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, and ordered Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to prepare a plan to adjudicate the pending SIV applications following a final determination on class certification.

In February 2020, Judge Chutkan certified a class of all applicants whose applications were pending government action more than nine months and appointed Freshfields and IRAP as class counsel. The defendant agencies submitted a first adjudication plan thirty days later, which Freshfields and IRAP challenged as failing to meet the court’s orders. Judge Chutkan agreed and ordered the defendant agencies to work with Freshfields and IRAP as class counsel to devise a joint plan.

In May 2020, the parties agreed to a Joint Plan, which the court ratified in June. Under the Joint Plan, which provides a framework implementing the court’s orders, the defendant agencies are required to meet timing benchmarks for processing class members’ applications and make periodic reports on their process to the court.

In August 2020, the Defendants appealed several of the district court’s rulings to the D.C. Circuit. Since then, Freshfields and IRAP have been working to defend the hard won class relief on appeal and to monitor Defendants’ implementation of the Joint Plan.

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 fulfil 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.