Serving the Complaint: How to Start a Federal Lawsuit Against the Government in Immigration Matters

When you’re taking the government to court to speed up an unreasonably delayed immigration application decision, it’s important to start the legal countdown quickly. This means triggering the government’s 60-day response period for the lawsuit as soon as possible, in the hopes of nudging the government to decide your application before their response is due. The countdown begins when the government has been properly notified, or “served,” with the lawsuit. Even though this is a technical procedure, it’s pretty simple if done right. If done wrong, it could lead to problems. Here’s what you need to know.

“Service” is a legal term that refers to the official delivery of legal documents to the person or party who has the right to receive them. The details of this process, like what papers are being served, who delivers them, who receives them, and how it’s done, are all important. This can sometimes lead to disagreements and even more legal battles. However, serving the government is usually straightforward and follows clear rules. Plus, the government doesn’t typically try to avoid being served, the way some defendants sometimes try to “evade” service. The only problems usually come from not following the rules correctly.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(i) explains how to serve the U.S. government and its different parts, agencies, corporations, officers, or employees. It’s worth taking a look at. But here’s the key takeaway: The easiest and most cost-effective way to serve the government is to send a copy of the summons and complaint (the official documents that start the lawsuit) by certified mail to the U.S. Attorney General, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in the district where the suit is filed, and the appropriate postal address for each other government defendant.

The addresses for the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Attorney Offices don’t change often, but it’s good to double-check them every so often. However, the addresses for other agencies should be checked more frequently. For example, USCIS moved from DC to Maryland in the last few years. The current service address for USCIS can be found at 6 CFR 5.42 App. A(9)(a) or on the USCIS website. Like some government agencies, USCIS also requests that a copy of the lawsuit be emailed to, which should be done promptly to help speed up the process. Other government agencies, including those sub-agencies within USCIS, have different postal and email addresses.

You also have to be mindful of naming and serving the correct sub-agency. If you’re suing a consulate, for example, it is important to name the U.S. Department of State as a defendant and send the papers to its “General Counsel.”

The best practice—based on our experience handling many cases against the federal government—is to also give or email a copy of the summons and complaint to the relevant U.S. Attorney Civil Division chief or intake desk. This is only a courtesy, but it’s always a good move.