Originally Published in Vox
Nicole Narea - September 3, 2020
Trump’s policies created a naturalization backlog. Now would-be citizens could lose out on their chance to vote.
But the path hasn’t been easy. They’re facing ballooning processing times, higher fees, more intensive vetting, and even the possibility of later losing their citizenship at the hands of the Department of Justice’s newly created “denaturalization section,” which it announced in February 2020. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that processes applications for immigration benefits, has reopened its offices, but it’s also grappling with a budget crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic and struggling to keep up with the naturalization backlog.
As he seeks reelection, Trump is trying to portray himself as favoring legal immigration. On August 25, he held a naturalization ceremony at the White House for citizens of five different countries. The ceremony, broadcast during the Republican National Convention, likely violated federal law prohibiting taxpayer funds from being used for political campaigns. It also exploited the new American citizens, who didn’t know the ceremony would be part of the president’s reelection pitch.
But his actual immigration policies have primarily aimed to keep even legal immigrants out. The Covid-19 pandemic has added another layer of complications: More than 300,000 people stuck in a naturalization backlog could lose out on their chance to vote in the November election, in which new US citizens were previously projected to be among the fastest-growing voting blocs.
Doug Rand, a former White House official who worked on immigration policy in the Obama administration and the co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a tech company that helps immigrants apply for green cards and citizenship, said it’s hard not to see the obstacles to naturalization as being tinged with politics at the leadership level, even though rank-and-file employees are rushing to process naturalizations.
The Trump administration has made it harder to naturalize
Under Trump, naturalization — the process of becoming an American citizen — is taking longer than it has in the recent past.
Generally, only people who are over the age of 18 and have been a permanent resident for at least five years (or three years if they are married to a US citizen) are eligible to naturalize. Once they file a naturalization application, they can expect to wait another 8.8 months on average before they become a citizen, according to the latest USCIS data available — an increase of more than 50 percent since before Trump took office. In some areas, such as Seattle and Miami, wait times can exceed two years.
The increasing delays are due in part to Trump’s policy of “extreme vetting.” As a result, USCIS has increased its scrutiny of all immigration applications on the premise of rooting out fraud.
People applying for citizenship have already been vetted at least once to obtain a green card, and often more than once if they first came to the US on a temporary visa. Officials typically screen green card applicants, for example, for tax compliance, criminal history, US residence, and family ties.
Immigration attorneys have argued that additional in-depth screening isn’t necessary and only makes the process more cumbersome. But Ken Cuccinelli, then the acting director of USCIS, made his priorities clear in a July 2019 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “We are not a benefit agency, we are a vetting agency,” he said.
In Minnesota, immigrants whose green cards came through the visa lottery program have faced heightened scrutiny of their applications, said Ana Pottratz Acosta, an immigration lawyer in the state. The visa lottery is designed to attract citizens of countries with historically low levels of immigration, and it’s a program Trump has often maligned.
Immigrants have been threatened with deportation for failing to list a spouse or child on their initial visa application, which US officials allege constitutes fraud, even as their citizenship applications are still pending. This is highly unusual, Acosta said, and has left many immigrants with little means of obtaining legal relief in federal court.
It’s also more expensive than ever to become a citizen. Fees for online naturalization applications have already risen considerably in recent years, from $330 in 2006 to $640 in 2016. The fees will jump to $1,160 beginning October 2, at which point USCIS will also eliminate most fee waivers for people who cannot afford the cost. (An ongoing lawsuit seeks to prevent those changes from going into effect on the basis they would disproportionately hurt applicants who are least able to pay.)
The cost of becoming a US citizen remains a big barrier to many of the roughly 9.2 million immigrants living in the US who are eligible to naturalize. For example, Mexicans have naturalized at relatively low rates despite being the largest group of legal immigrants in the US by country of origin, and cost is the primary reason, according to the Pew Research Center.
Until it was struck down by a federal court in August, one Trump policy also increased scrutiny of noncitizens who joined the US military and are seeking naturalization. Before the policy went into effect in 2017, more than 8,500 service members applied to be fast-tracked for citizenship. But under the policy, noncitizens were required to serve at least 180 days on active duty or one year in the reservists before they became eligible to apply for citizenship, resulting in a 72 percent decline in the number of soldiers applying for naturalization in the year after it was implemented.
The pandemic and USCIS’s budget crisis have delayed naturalizations
In March, just as many states were implementing Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, USCIS announced it was shutting down field offices, where interviews for citizenship applications normally take place. Citizenship oath ceremonies — normally joyous affairs representing the final step in the naturalization process, attended by hundreds of almost-citizens and their families — came to a halt. The agency refused to administer citizenship ceremonies online, citing “logistical challenges” and security concerns.
Hetlage said the agency has since carried out almost all of those 110,000 naturalizations (the rest have to be carried out by federal courts, some of which have put naturalizations on hold due to the pandemic).
But that’s still only a fraction of the more than 700,000 naturalization applications that were pending at the end of March, suggesting the agency is still facing a hefty backlog.
“With those oaths complete, naturalizations continue to be a priority for USCIS, and we strive to complete them as efficiently as possible. We have also prioritized rescheduling interviews for naturalization and adjustment of status that were postponed,” Hetlage said in a statement to Vox. “We are conducting naturalization interviews and are committed to conducting as many interviews as we can in manner that is safe for our staff and for the public.”
Immigrant advocates are worried that naturalization interviews, the second-to-last step before becoming a citizen, aren’t being scheduled quickly enough. Rand said that by Boundless’s estimates, there could be some 315,000 people waiting for their interviews — many of them in Florida — who could be deprived of the chance to vote in November due to administrative delays.
Immigration attorneys have also reported delays in the scheduling of naturalization interviews across the US. (USCIS doesn’t break out the number of people waiting for interviews from the number of pending cases, an agency spokesperson said.)
“The USCIS, while clearly swearing people in that it interviewed before shutting down [during] the pandemic, is still light years behind where it should be in interviewing and naturalizing future citizens, many of whom applied well more than a year ago for their citizenship with the hopes to vote in the upcoming election,” Charles Kuck, an immigration lawyer based in Atlanta, said. “While this is a perennial problem at USCIS, it seems especially problematic this year, given what’s at stake in this year’s election for immigrants to America.”
USCIS has processed an average of about 12,000 citizenship applications per week since March 18, according to USCIS data. But that’s still well below the rate needed to reach the 70,000 naturalizations that are typically completed per month.
USCIS’s ability to speed up naturalizations is hampered by its ongoing budget crisis. Unlike other federal agencies, USCIS receives almost no taxpayer dollars, and instead depends on fees associated with filing applications for green cards, visas, work permits, US citizenship, and humanitarian benefits such as asylum.
In May, USCIS asked Congress for a $1.2 billion bailout, claiming it would “have to take drastic actions to keep the agency afloat” by the end of the summer without aid. At the time, a spokesperson for the agency said the pandemic had already brought on a “dramatic decrease” in revenue. Trump’s restrictions on immigration, other countries’ limitations on travel, and the closing of necessary government offices that process applications all contributed to the decline in revenue.
To help mitigate the budget shortfall, USCIS in July announced a weighted average increase of 20 percent on all applications and limited spending to salary and mission-critical activities. The agency now projects it will have enough funds to remain operable through October and announced it would delay a plan to furlough roughly 70 percent of staff.
But the agency also said it is still carrying out “aggressive spending reduction measures” that will likely increase processing times, although “naturalization ceremonies will continue.”
USCIS hasn’t released data on how many applications it has received since states first implemented stay-at-home orders in March, but it has acknowledged that applications are on the decline. The latest available comprehensive data, from January through March, showed a reduction in overall applications of less than 2 percent from the preceding three months.
Applications dipped in April, May, and June compared to the same period last year across several temporary visa categories, including H-1B visas for skilled workers, H-2B visas for temporary nonagricultural workers, L-1 visas for people transferring within a multinational company, and O visas for those who show extraordinary ability or achievement in particular industries.
But some experts are skeptical that the budget shortfall due to Covid-19 is as dire as USCIS made it out to be in May, saying the agency was already on a path to insolvency before the pandemic hit.
Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Congress in July that USCIS had mismanaged a surplus it inherited at the beginning of the Trump administration, introduced inefficient vetting procedures, and hired too many new staff to identify and investigate fraud, among other ill-advised financial decisions.
“The primary cause of its financial woes is fiscal mismanagement, as well as the agency’s adoption and implementation of various policies and processes that are negatively impacting its own revenue and efficiency,” she said.