Prospective U.S. citizens are in a “race against time” to become fully naturalized before they can vote in this year’s presidential election.
For many, the timing doesn’t look good. The applications of these green card holders have been in limbo since the USCIS suspended in-person services on March 18, after the coronavirus crisis took hold. A new report by Boundless, an immigration startup that helps immigrants navigate and send applications, with the help of attorney counsel, for a fraction of the hefty price, predicts that there’s currently a backlog affecting 700,000 naturalization applicants, of which up to 441,000 will miss out on the chance to vote in November. In the 2018 midterm elections, 8% of the ballots were cast by naturalized citizens.
Boundless was founded by Doug Rand, an Obama immigration policy official, and Xiao Wang, (now the CEO), whose family immigrated to the U.S. when Wang was a boy. Though Wang admits the naturalization process is shorter and less complex than the earlier step of becoming a green card holder (a permanent resident), which requires an application that averages 400 pages. Still, candidates have to fill out the paperwork and wait for USCIS approval, then complete an in-person exam and interview, and, lastly, attend an oath ceremony, marking the transition to citizenship.
But, since the virus outbreak, the USCIS has halted interviews and oath ceremonies to comply with lockdowns. Meanwhile, it’s still receiving applications, leading to a pileup affecting an estimated 700,000 applicants, who are essentially now “waiting at the one-yard line,” Wang says. The agency has offered no clarity as to when processing will resume. But, in a statement to Fast Company, the USCIS says all in-person services would be suspended through at least June 3, “to protect our workforce and to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus in our communities.”
While there’s no evidence these delays are anything other than virus-related, the Trump administration has been explicit in using the pandemic to achieve its goals of curbing legal immigration. In the past month, the administration has announced an executive order banning entry for green card applicants living abroad, many of whom are spouses of residents, and has also reportedly looked into blocking H-1Bs and other work visas.
At a time when most services have pivoted to business-by-Zoom, the agency has not announced plans to conduct exams, interviews, or oath ceremonies digitally, which would improve the situation dramatically, Wang says. “We definitely hope that the administration will adapt to this new situation, and be able to leverage technology in ways that it hasn’t before,” he says. That’d also be self-benefitting at a time when the USCIS—facing an end of application fee funds—has asked Congress for a bailout of $1.2 billion.
Instead of digital processing, would-be citizens are stuck waiting for field offices to reopen, to get approved in time for voter registration, whose average deadline date is October 18. An estimated 100,000 of those people have cleared all the hurdles, including the interview, and are only waiting for the swearing-in ceremony. “This is not even at the one-yard line now,” Wang says. “You have scored, but the points haven’t been put on the scoreboard.” For all intents and purposes, they are citizens, only without the right to vote.
However, there are legal and logistical issues with digital vows. Under current federal immigration laws, naturalization ceremonies are required to be in person. And, at the start of ceremonies, officials collect paper documents from prospective citizens, including green cards, to ensure they’re still eligible at the time of swearing in.
On May 21, Representative Sylvia Garcia of Texas used Boundless’s report to attempt to counter those obstacles. She called for cosponsors of her proposed Virtual Naturalization Act, which would allow remote ceremonies to take place through videoconference, and required documents to be sent electronically. Garcia added that digital ceremonies would ensure all participants stayed safe and not be at risk of exposure.
The report also shared details about which cities’ field offices processed applications the fastest. Cleveland was the quickest, with an average total processing time of 3.7 months; the worst was Seattle, at 15.8 months. Boundless calculated that applicants in Seattle who hoped to vote would have had to file their applications in November 2018 in time for 2020 voter registration. Wang recommends that the agency makes different staffing decisions to restore the huge imbalance across field offices.
Boundless’s role, Wang says, is to “shine a light” on what’s happening, to influence legislative change and convince the government that immigrants are a “net positive” for society. Immigrants are also key contributors to the economy, engaging in higher-paying jobs and paying their fair share of taxes. Wang says Americans would be “shooting ourselves in the foot” to not open the doors to these people under the current circumstances of economic duress, and to not let them be a part of the recovery.
On May 21, California’s District 43 announced that the three field offices in its boundaries—including Los Angeles, L.A. County, and San Fernando Valley—would resume interviews on June 16, and would conduct limited oath ceremonies on June 27 and 28, with “social distancing as a priority” in both cases.
But generally, there’s still no end in sight to clearing the backlog. And, Wang predicts that even when the USCIS resumes operations, oath ceremonies will likely have smaller capacities to comply with social distancing, stretching the process out even longer. The agency all but confirmed that sentiment, saying in its statement that rescheduled ceremonies “may be shorter to limit exposure to those in attendance.”
In those ceremonies, not only do immigrants have to swear allegiance to the U.S., but also renounce bonds to their home nations. Wang says that’s a significant sacrifice and commitment for individuals who, in exchange, hope to be afforded the right to vote. “They’re actually saying, ‘this life that I had in my previous country, I’m willing to give up all of that, because I believe in America.'”
Correction: We’ve updated this story to note that the citizenship application is not 400 pages like the green card application.