A person can qualify for a U visa if they have been the victim of certain, generally felony-level, crimes. They must cooperate in the investigation and/or prosecution of the crime. The victim must also have suffered significant harm because of the crime.
Congress created U visas in 2000 through the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Congress established a pool of 10,000 U visas each year. Notably, family members of U visa applicants do not count toward the 10,000-visa limit. The quantity of U visa applicants has exploded, especially since 2013, as more people have become aware of its existence. As of 2019, there were more than 250,000 pending U visa applications. Today, the backlog is unquestionably longer.
As of May 2021, the government reports it is taking 59 to 59.5 months, or 4.9 years, to issue an initial decision (determination of whether to grant U visa deferred action) on Form I-918 U visa applications. USCIS processing times are available here by case type: Processing Times (uscis.gov). If an person has been waiting more than 4.9 years for a decision, it is likely that the government is preparing a request for additional evidence in the case. It will take even longer (potentially up to another year) to receive the actual U visa approval as a person waits for USCIS to allocate one of the 10,000 visas to them.
USCIS has taken the position that it will wait to make decisions on U visa applications until a visa is nearly available. The government could decide to devote more resources to U visa adjudication, granting deferred action sooner to qualified applicants. It may be possible to change the U visa processing policy by contacting Congresspeople and urging them to pressure USCIS to improve of processing times. We are hopeful that the current administration will do more to help victims and key witnesses by creating regulations that authorize what is known as the (p)(6) work permit. Congress authorized the creation of a temporary work permit for while a U visa application is pending. However, USCIS must make regulations to process this category of work permit. It has not acted for ten years! Wilson Law Group has begun to threaten DHS with litigation because of the lack of a response, and is advocating key congressional representatives also to push DHS to act.
This long delay in U visa processing is especially frustrating because applicants receive no interim benefits. The government does not offer work permits to those with pending U visa applications. A U visa applicant is only eligible for employment authorization after USCIS grants deferred action.
There is no way to jump ahead in the line to obtain adjudication faster than the 4.9 years. The government will not respond at all to phone calls or online status check requests for updates on U visa cases due to confidentiality concerns given the sensitive nature of U visa cases. Data on pending U visas through the case status online (Case Status Online - Case Status Search (uscis.gov)) is generally unavailable for the same reason. The government will not respond to letter inquiries for cases filed after the “receipt date for a case inquiry.” Each case is adjudicated in a first-come, first-served basis. Inquiries will not prompt the government to decide faster if an applicant is not yet at the front of the line. It is merely paper going into a dark hole at this point.
We understand the exasperation. We will push for faster action on deferred action, employment authorization for pending applications, and more visa numbers. No one should have to wait five years to learn their fate, or garner protection under the law.