Citizenship delays may keep immigrants from voting
WASHINGTON - When Juliana Ximenes Coutinho Dias submitted her naturalization application last December, the possibility of finally becoming a U.S. citizen and getting to vote in the country she has called home for the past six years electrified the Brazil native.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which adjudicates immigration benefits and visas, shut down its field offices. It also postponed naturalization interviews and ceremonies, adding to a backlog worsened by budget woes and threatening to prevent hundreds of thousands of would-be citizens from registering in time to vote this November.
Today, Dias, whose original citizenship interview was scheduled for last April, sees her prospects for casting a ballot this fall slipping away. A series of indefinite delays has left her in status in limbo and soured her excitement.
"I'm feeling very hopeless and frustrated," said the 30-year-old paralegal, who now lives in Chicago.
USCIS has not disclosed how far behind it is in naturalizations. The agency completed 156,849 naturalizations from March 18 to Aug. 23, according to publicly available government data. That figure includes the 110,000 people whose oath ceremonies were postponed because of the pandemic, said USCIS spokesman Dan Hetlage.
"Our top priority has been to resume naturalization ceremonies for those whose ceremonies were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.
Hetlage said the agency is on pace to naturalize approximately 600,000 new citizens by the end of the current fiscal year, which runs through September. But that's nearly 30% lower than the previous year when 834,000 new citizens were sworn in, the highest number in 11 years, according to USCIS.
And the naturalization backlog could get worse, warned a top administrator for the Homeland Security Department agency.
Last month, the predominantly fee-funded agency called off plans to furlough roughly two-thirds of its 20,000 employees, saying a recent uptick in revenue and aggressive cost-cutting measures provided enough money to maintain operations through the end of the current fiscal year.
Joseph Edlow, the agency's deputy director for policy, warned that "averting this furlough comes at a severe operational cost that will increase backlogs and wait times across the board, with no guarantee we can avoid future furloughs."
In mid-March, USCIS suspended its in-person services at its field offices amid the coronavirus pandemic. When it began reopening them on June 4, the agency resumed processing citizenship applications, including "conducting as many interviews as we can in a manner that is safe for our staff and for the public," Hetlage said.
It also restarted in-person swearing-in ceremonies, although at a slower pace and at a much smaller scale in order to accommodate social distancing protocols. Some advocacy groups and immigration experts called on USCIS to conduct virtual ceremonies to help expedite the process, but the agency said administering citizenship oaths virtually would present logistical challenges.
"At this point, there's no question that USCIS is going to effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people this election year," said Doug Rand, co-founder of the organization Boundless Immigration and a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. "It's going to massively disrupt people's lives."
Naturalizations tend to spike in an election year and drop right after. Before the pandemic, the National Partnership of New Americans, a coalition of state, federal and local organizations that help new citizens register to vote, estimated that 860,000 people were scheduled to become U.S. citizens by the end of the year.
More than 23 million U.S. citizens who were born abroad could be part of the overall electorate this fall, according to a Pew Research Center analysis released earlier this year. That's about 1 in 10 Americans, a record high. In fact, the number of new citizens since the last election alone exceeds Trump's margin of victory in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan combined, and has made up substantial portions of the growth in each state's eligible voters since 2016.
The National Partnership of New Americans hasn't updated its new citizens estimates amid the pandemic, but deferred to figures by Rand's organization, Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship.
According to government data analyzed by Boundless, the organization estimates USCIS has interviewed 91,000 out of 381,000 naturalization applicants who could have become citizens in time to cast a November ballot. The organization said that, because of a typical two-month lag between the naturalization interview and citizenship oath, the remaining 290,000 immigrants who weren't interviewed by the end of August have little chance of becoming citizens in time to meet the October voter registration deadlines in most states.
USCIS pushed back on the Boundless analysis of how many interviews it had conducted, calling it "inaccurate" but did not elaborate or provide differing figures.
"We have prioritized rescheduling interviews for naturalization and 'adjustment of status' that were postponed," said agency spokesman Joe Sowers, reiterating the agency is trying to conduct as many interviews as safely as possible.
The agency also did not answer why Dias and other citizen-hopefuls have yet to hear back on new appointment dates for their naturalization interviews or tests.
Reeti Ghosh, an immigrant from India, started her naturalization process more than a year ago. She looked forward to finally voting, which she viewed as an opportunity to speak up about the racial injustice she witnessed in the country and even discriminatory behavior she felt locally, in her New Jersey community.
She was scheduled to take her civics test in April, but the pandemic cancelled the appointment. Despite repeated attempts by her attorney to reschedule, she has yet to hear back from USCIS with a new date.
"I really feel frustrated and honestly I can't wait for this process to be done and over with," she said. "It's just the uncertainty. It is like a time bomb ticking. ... You're just really waiting for things to happen and just waiting there for no real reason."