A group of non-citizen survivors of violent crimes sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Friday in Los Angeles for failing to process their visa and employment authorization applications in what they consider a timely manner.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles alleges that despite assistance the plaintiffs provided to local law enforcement, applicants have waited years for USCIS to process their U visa petitions and applications for work authorization. Some have waited more than four years for a response, plaintiffs’ counsel contends.

A USCIS spokeswoman said that as a matter of policy, USCIS does not comment on pending litigation.

Congress created the U visa to encourage undocumented survivors of violent crime to step out of the shadows, cooperate with law enforcement, and ultimately improve public safety. In exchange, the victims — all of whom suffered substantial physical or emotional harm — can potentially gain legal status to remain in the United States along with qualifying family members.

According to USCIS, nearly 250,000 U visa applications are currently pending.

All plaintiffs in the new lawsuit have been unable to secure legitimate work and adequately support themselves and their families, according to LAFLA. Without a work permit, they are also more susceptible to removal from the United States and retaliation from the same criminals whose actions they reported to law enforcement, LAFLA officials said.

“Reporting crime is often the most difficult step,” LAFLA Senior Attorney Brigit G. Alvarez said. “These applicants come from countries where corruption is commonplace and they cannot rely on law enforcement to protect them. Sadly, USCIS is showing these victims that we will not protect them either.”

USCIS limits the number of U visas granted each year. However, applicants placed on its formal waiting list are still eligible to apply for an Employment Authorization Document. Under federal law, the USCIS must process EAD applications while a U visa petition is pending.

For applications filed before Jan. 17, 2017 — like those of the plaintiffs — USCIS must process those EAD applications within 90 days after filing. Many of the plaintiffs filed their applications more than four years ago, yet none of them has received a decision from USCIS, according to LAFLA.

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