According to reports, although many are still being naturalized, there are significant delays and backlogs in naturalization processing this year. In some cases, wait times have increased up to 10 months to 3 years after filing a naturalization application, from an average of 5.6 months in 2016. Reportedly, more than 300,000 people are waiting.
Delays are being attributed to increased vetting, along with COVID-19 issues, including related office closures and reduced staffing at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field offices over several months this past spring. Some have speculated that politics may be playing a role also, since those who aren’t naturalized by November 3 this year will be unable to vote. Whether deliberate or not, the impact of naturalization delays is expected to be considerable. Wait times for naturalization applications were already increasing under the Trump administration even before the pandemic.
Some in USCIS leadership reportedly have claimed that it would be impossible to administer the naturalization oath virtually, which is not the case. Indeed, USCIS’s own Ombudsman’s Office told Congress this year that the pandemic presents an opportunity to introduce video teleconferencing technology into USCIS’s naturalization process for both interviews and oath-taking ceremonies, noting that such video teleconferencing would be “a legally permissible and operationally feasible solution.” The ombudsman noted that it is within the agency’s discretion to determine the mode of interview. Regarding administrative naturalization ceremonies, an applicant could attend a remote ceremony to meet the in-person requirement and could bring guests to meet the “public” requirement, or USCIS could provide a publicly available streaming capacity for the applicant to share with family and friends, the ombudsman said. The ombudsman suggested that USCIS could build on its current remote capabilities and adopt best practices from other federal agencies.
The Colorado Advisory Committee informed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that “hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible permanent residents may not naturalize in time to vote in the November 2020 election,” which the committee called a “serious impediment to the exercise of voting rights.” Echoing the USCIS Ombudsman’s Office, the Colorado committee encouraged the commission to urge USCIS to expedite naturalization processing by: (1) employing alternative formats, such as virtual, drive-through, or outdoor ceremonies; (2) allowing for administrative naturalization and waivers of the ceremony requirement; and (3) empowering courts to expand and expedite judicial administrations of the oath of allegiance. The ombudsman also said USCIS “needs to consider additional steps to assist it with the adjudication of naturalization applications, including those pending for a significant time, such as concurrent adjudications with pending applications.”
The Pew Research Center found that 23.2 million naturalized citizens, or roughly a record 10 percent of the electorate, were on track to be able to vote by November. This included 860,000 new Americans who would have naturalized by November if the process hadn’t slowed down, according to the National Partnership for New Americans. Time is running out.
- “How Trump Made It That Much Harder to Become a U.S. Citizen,” Vox, https://www.vox.com/2020/9/3/21408528/trump-naturalization-backlog-citizenship-voting
- “New U.S. Citizens Were One of the Fastest-Growing Voting Blocs. But Not This Year,” FiveThirtyEight, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/new-u-s-citizens-were-one-of-the-fastest-growing-voting-blocs-but-not-this-year/
- “Naturalized Citizens Make Up Record One-in-Ten U.S. Eligible Voters in 2020,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/02/26/naturalized-citizens-make-up-record-one-in-ten-u-s-eligible-voters-in-2020/
- “Naturalize Now, Vote Tomorrow: New Americans Vote 2020,” National Partnership for New Americans,” https://partnershipfornewamericans.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Naturalize_Now_Vote_Tomorrow_FINAL.pdf
- “Historical National Average Processing Time (in Months) for All USCIS Offices for Select Forms by Fiscal Year,” USCIS, https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/historic-pt
- “Annual Report, 2020,” USCIS Ombudsman, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/20_0630_cisomb-2020-annual-report-to-congress.pdf
- “Colorado Advisory Committee Calls on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to Urge [USCIS] to Address Naturalization Backlog by Modifying Oath and Allegiance Ceremonies During COVID-19 Crisis,” Colorado Advisory Committee, https://www.usccr.gov/files/2020-07-22-CO-SAC-Statement-on-Naturalization-Backlog-and-COVID.pdf