by Ming Hsu Chen
Citizenship unlocks voting rights for immigrants in America. The long wait for naturalized citizenship imperils those rights for a growing number of immigrants.
A backlog is defined as the “number of pending applications that exceed acceptable or target pending levels.” The nationwide backlog for naturalization is now exacerbated by COVID-19 agency closures and social distancing requirements that limit the size of the oath ceremony.
With the November 2020 elections coming, holding back immigrants from becoming citizens will be consequential – especially given the growing size of the Asian American and Latino electorate in swing states.
From 2017 to 2019, the Colorado State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan government agency of which I am a member, examined the causes and consequences of naturalization backlogs and their effects on voting rights, civil rights and the administration of justice.
We found that the federal agency responsible for naturalization, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was keeping 738,148 people’s naturalization applications waiting – for anywhere between 10 months and nearly three years – at the time of the report.
Federal laws target a processing time of six months, and it was 5.6 months in 2016 when President Trump took office. It has grown to to 10-18 months in the last four years.
We concluded that the substantial delay to naturalization created by the backlog hurts voting rights because you can’t vote until you’ve become a U.S. citizen.
Though the situation briefly improved after September 2019, the backlog has been rebuilding, and it could get worse.
Worse during COVID-19
Since September 2019, the backlog has grown again from 647,576 to 700,885.
The most recent government data indicates that 700,885 naturalization applications were still pending in March 2020, and that the average processing time for the naturalization application in 2020 is approximately 12 months. The longest delays are for applicants working with the Chicago office, who have to wait 13 to 48.5 months.
These numbers don’t reflect what happened when COVID-19 hit and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices closed from March 18 to June 4, 2020.
That’s when a new kind of backlog developed: As a result of the postponement of naturalization ceremonies, approximately 126,000 eligible immigrants have been left waiting to become citizens.
When it reopened, the agency began in-person oath ceremonies in small groups to meet social distancing precautions that allow for only 10% of the original capacity. Although some offices have shortened the oath ceremonies to increase their frequency, it is not enough to catch up.
Things are likely to get worse. The agency anticipates it may exhaust its funding and is planning to administratively furlough up to 70% of its workforce if it does not receive emergency funding from Congress. That will slow the process down even further.
Immigrants who become naturalized citizens can influence elections.
Before COVID-19 shut down most of the country, the Pew Research Center projected that in November 2020, 10% of the U.S. electorate would be naturalized citizens. Many of these new citizens are concentrated in states that are likely to play a big role in November’s election.
For instance, the National Partnership for New Americans, a nonprofit organization that coordinates voter registration and naturalization nationwide, reports that the margin of victory was 112,911 ballots in Florida during the 2016 presidential election. The number of naturalized voters in Florida who became citizens between 2014 and 2018 is almost triple that margin, at 415,468, suggesting that new voters could make a difference in this delegate rich state.
The number of newly naturalized voters in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada also exceeded Donald Trump’s margin of victory in 2016.
Naturalized voters will likely also play a role in Senate races in Arizona, Virginia and North Carolina.
Although naturalized citizens do not always vote as a bloc for one political party, their support for specific issues has become increasingly cohesive since 2008: in favor of immigration reform, health care and workers’ rights during COVID-19.
As the backlog grows, more people who could become citizens in time for the 2020 election will have to wait to vote for a president until 2024 – or later. Boundless, a network of immigration experts who provide immigrants help with the naturalization process, uses government data to estimate that 2,100 immigrants will run out of time to vote each day that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices remain closed.
The total number held back by the end of September is 378,000 people who would otherwise have been able to vote, Boundless estimates.
In many places, immigrants must complete the citizenship oath by early October in order to register in time for the election, worsening these estimates.
Fixing the backlog, getting to vote
There are a number of ways that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service could overcome barriers to naturalization and voting rights in the time remaining before the election. Some of these ways were included in a statement about the naturalization backlog made by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in July and have been endorsed by representatives of both parties in Congress:
• Use alternative formats for oath ceremonies, such as virtual, drive-through or outdoor ceremonies;
• Allow courts to expand and expedite judicial administrations of the oath.
By taking these combined steps, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would allow newly naturalized Americans to engage in the foundational right ensured by citizenship: voting.
Ming Hsu Chen is a member of the Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and contributed its study of the naturalization backlog.