Last week, after months of waiting, Gomez finally heard back from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services about the scheduled date for his naturalization interview. The rub: the appointment is on Nov. 8, the day he hoped to cast his ballot for Clinton.
“Maybe next election I can vote,” he said, with just a hint of regret.
Gomez is just one of the thousands of applicants affected by the growing naturalization backlog. According to USCIS data covering April to June of this year, released by USCIS on Sept. 30, delays will leave around a half-million applicants with pending naturalization applications and thus unable to vote in the upcoming presidential election – a race in which immigration was a defining issue.
According to a National Partnership for New Americans report, since this time last year, nearly 930,000 people have applied for citizenship, up 32.1 percent over the same period in 2015. According to the report, the backlog has grown at about the same rate, up 31.2 percent since 2015.
It’s just one of the issues plaguing the agency: Earlier this year, Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth slammed USCIS for failing to modernize its information technology. Last month, Roth issued a report critiquing the agency for improperly approving more than 850 citizenship petitions – leading a number of congressional Republicans to demand that the agency beef up protective measures to ensure only those eligible become citizens.
A DHS official explained the naturalization situation this way: “USCIS uses statistical forecasting models to plan for the potential increased volume of work. USCIS anticipated that there would be a spike in applications this year, as we usually see in an election year, but the increase in N-400 applications has exceeded expectations.” Despite this, the official maintained that “the current pending workload does not equate to a backlog.”
But, according to NPNA’s deputy director, Tara Raghuveer, the current delay in processing citizenship petitions reveals a predictable failure in USCIS’s forecasting. Historically, naturalization rates increase both in election years and periods in which the N-400 filing fee goes up, she says. Both factors are currently at play – according to the USCIS website, filing fees are set to go up by 21 percent. Given that this cost increase takes place at the same time as a major-party presidential candidate has been stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, USCIS could have anticipated, and better prepared for, the influx of citizenship petitions.
“Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people are going to be disenfranchised immigrant voters. That’s not right. That corrodes the basis of our American democratic administration and prevents people from being civically engaged,” Raghuveer said.
NPNA and other organizations urged applicants to file naturalization applications before May 1, to give their applications time to be processed, allowing them to become citizens, and voters, in time for the November election.
According to Oscar Chacon, executive director of Alianza Americas, an organization that has partnered with NPNA, many of those who applied for citizenship this year were motivated to vote on immigration reform. Many were Latinos who felt threatened by Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, including his first campaign speech, in which he referred to at least some Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists and vowed to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it.
“Becoming a citizen is now the only option that we have,” Chacon said. “There are people who are very happy to attack us. When they attack, one of the ways we can indeed respond is that we can show how invested in the U.S. not only economic system, but also political system, we are by voting in increased numbers.”
Some of the naturalization backlog is centered at immigration offices in battleground states including Pennsylvania, Florida and Nevada. In Nevada, citizenship applications have increased 53.8 percent since 2015, while the backlog has grown 89.4 percent and left more than 6,800 people unsure if their voices will be heard come November.
“That makes it somewhat more regrettable there hasn’t been an expedited way of processing applications in the USCIS because we could become a more powerful voting bloc in these particular states,” Chacon said.
According to the DHS official, although USCIS has responded to the backlog by paying staff overtime, and by reshuffling applications to other, less busy field offices, many of those who hoped to vote in November won’t be eligible in time.
“Speed it up,” says Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, who says USCIS’s efforts are too little, too late. “Have people work longer hours to speed up the process. I understand that it’s a lot of requirements and lot of background checks, but I think they have to really do what they can to bring in people.” Like Raghuveer, she expressed frustration that 95 percent of USCIS funding comes from fees – including $680 for N-400s – even though Congress could provide additional funding that would help speed up the process and support a quintessentially American activity: becoming American.
Citizenship petitions are already cost-prohibitive. Applicants pay the fees, learn English, study for the required civics test and go through a background check in the hopes of becoming citizens and exercising the franchise. Right now, though, the system that is supposed to reward immigrants who play by the rules is the same one that is holding them back.
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Tepper is a freelance journalist and student at the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.