COVID-19 Delays Could Keep Thousands of Immigrants from Voting

Pandemic Delays Threaten Naturalization in Time for Presidential Election

As of March 31, 2020, over 700,000 immigrants have naturalization requests pending with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, with nearly 22,000 concentrated in Chicago alone. Naturalization represents the final step in an often-arduous journey for immigrants to become fully legal, permanent United States citizens. Once approved, a naturalization ceremony, which involves taking an oath of allegiance among other formalities, takes about 10 minutes. However, immigrants will be waiting significantly longer for their naturalization applications to be processed and accepted as a result of COVID-19. Below, we cover some of the factors that have contributed to mounting naturalization delays.

The emerging pandemic forced many government institutions to temporarily shutter operations, including most USCIS facilities and services. While USCIS resumed some nonemergency services in June of 2020 and has ramped up since then, they now face an unprecedented backlog of applications as the agency simultaneously experiences a historic budgetary shortfall. This funding crisis could result in USCIS furloughing a substantial portion of their staff, inevitably worsening delays in application processing.

These delays represent a tragic burden to immigrants seeking to finally become United States citizens. Immigration advocates note that many eligible immigrants filed their naturalization documents in late 2019 and early 2020 with the hopes of being permitted to vote in the forthcoming presidential election. The 4-month pandemic-related closure of facilities alone has made that dream an impossibility for most.

Even though USCIS has resumed some services, not every branch of the government critical to supporting the naturalization process has done so. For example, federal courts in Chicago, as of this writing, have not held any naturalization ceremonies since the pandemic began. This and other capacity factors have led to a strain on other facilities capable of hosting the ceremonies. Some have begun conducting truncated ceremonies with sanitation, mask requirements, and physical distancing measures in place. However, fewer individuals can be accommodated per ceremony, meaning a space that could once swear in 100 citizens is now limited to as few as 10.

Other steps that are difficult under COVID-19 restrictions, like taking fingerprints, have further complicated the process. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for the Trump administration to take steps to relax certain regulations in light of the pandemic, including proposing remote naturalization ceremonies.

COVID-19 Not the Source of All Delays

Procedural delays in the naturalization began mounting well before COVID-19 forced institutional shutdowns. Immigration advocates point out the average naturalization processing time raised to 13 months in 2020 versus 6 months in 2016. Some Chicago immigrants suffer wait times as long as 4 years. The average number of application denials have also steadily risen, with USCIS reporting they rejected 1,008 naturalization petitions in the first 3 months of 2020 versus 479 in the first 3 months of 2018.

Immigration watchdogs have become frustrated with increasingly expanded, convoluted, and even redundant document requests from USCIS. Some applicants have been forced to supply the same documents multiple times, while others have been forced to provide more paperwork to validate education and work history than is typical. Others still have faced further resistance during the interview process, with USCIS officers conducting longer-than-necessary interviews that include questions unrelated to citizen eligibility.

Some suspect the Trump administration, which has publicly indicated that reducing immigration is a policy priority, is angling to slow down the naturalization process. The delays have become so severe that members of Congress from both major political parties have requested the Trump administration find solutions to the backlog and prevent further interruptions wherever possible.

President Trump has plenty of reason to slow down the naturalization process where possible, however. Naturalized citizens are statistically more likely to exercise their right to vote and may be more willing to participate in protests where arrests are possible. The demographics of naturalized citizens also more reliably vote for liberal causes and candidates, meaning even a few additional naturalized citizens in key swing states could in theory jeopardize the President’s reelection efforts.

The COVID-19 pandemic justifiably led to some delays that will keep many who anticipated voting from doing so, but the consequences of further setbacks go beyond the November 2020 presidential election. Many eligible immigrants are racing to become naturalized citizens in anticipation of further anti-immigrant actions implemented by the Trump administration, including those that target the immediate family of non-citizens. Others may have expiring green cards that require them to leave the country if they do not take further action.

Get Help in Your Fight for Naturalization

Becoming a United States citizen has never been a simple or easy process, but the unprecedented impact of both COVID-19 and Trump administration policies have made naturalization more challenging than ever. It can be frustrating and even frightening to go up against USCIS alone, especially if officers continuously demand more paperwork or ask for more than what is legally necessary.

At Tesfaye Law, our immigration attorneys can support you by fighting for a timely naturalization process and representing you in communications with USCIS. We are a nimble firm built on an enduring belief in the American Dream, and we strive to help every immigrant in their journey to United States citizenship. We have a deep knowledge of USCIS and understand how to navigate the agency’s complex, often-confusing systems. We can help you avoid common errors that can lead to additional delays and give you the individualized, compassionate care you deserve.

We are proud to offer free initial consultations, weekend appointment options, and services in Amharic. Call (703) 454-8865 or contact us online today.