Citizenship Backlog Could Prevent Hundreds of Thousands From Voting

Magdalena Olvera at her home in San Pablo on July 24, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Magdalena Olvera dreamed of becoming a U.S. citizen for years. At age 7, her mother brought her from Mexico to live in the Bay Area. Both were undocumented, but they were able to legalize their immigration status in 2012 after her mother married a man who was able to sponsor them because he was a legal resident with a green card.

“Definitely since I became a lawful permanent resident, I just couldn’t wait to become a citizen,” Olvera said, who’s now 25 years old.

But Olvera was required to wait another five years to be eligible for naturalization. Finally, last August, she submitted her application to the federal agency that processes such petitions, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. She believed that turning in her application more than a year before the November elections would give her plenty of time to naturalize and then register to vote.

“I was just really excited to finally be able to vote and to have a voice in the election. And not just for me, but also for the people who cannot,” Olvera, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, said.

But Olvera, and hundreds of thousands of other lawful immigrants applying to become American citizens, may be shut out on Election Day because of massive delays at USCIS, according to analysts. Those delays are expected to get a lot worse if the agency furloughs more than two-thirds of its staff later this summer, as officials plan to do unless Congress intervenes.

Magdalena Olvera, an immigration legal assistant, works at her home office on July 24, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At the end of March — the month the pandemic was declared — more than 700,000 people had pending naturalization applications with USCIS. About 20% of them, including Olvera, were in California.

Due to fears of COVID-19 transmission, the agency closed its offices to the public on March 18 and canceled naturalization interviews. Offices began reopening June 4, but some remain shuttered. And although USCIS has resumed in-person services, it is not operating at full capacity because of social distancing requirements.

The agency has focused on rescheduling oath ceremonies for most of the 110,000 immigrants who had already been approved in March, said USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins.

“Our top priority has been to resume naturalization ceremonies for those whose ceremonies were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Collins said in a statement.

But most of the 700,000 immigrants awaiting approval in March are likely still waiting, and the backlog may have grown since then, although USCIS hasn’t released up-to-date statistics.

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Earlier this year, the average processing time for a citizenship petition was 8.6 months — up from 5.6 months in 2016. Under normal circumstances, Olvera would likely be an American by now. But processing times have skyrocketed — taking up to 20 months at the USCIS office in San Francisco, and even longer in some other cities.

“I haven't been scheduled for an interview yet. I don't think that it might happen this year,” Olvera said, a legal assistant at an immigration law office, who also said more of her clients have been rejected for asylum and other benefits under President Trump.

“I feel pretty angry and disempowered,” she added.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and the cost of applying for citizenship — which is set to increase nearly 40% to $1,170 in the fall — are motivating more people to try to naturalize now, said Louis DeSipio, professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at UC Irvine.

But the delays at USCIS may prevent as many as half a million immigrants from becoming voters by November — and that could impact the presidential election in battleground states such as Florida and Arizona, he said.

Newly naturalized citizens aren’t likely to affect the presidential outcome in deep blue California, but they could tip the election in close congressional races, including in the Fresno area, where freshman Democratic Rep. TJ Cox is trying to hold on to his seat.

“The more dramatic impact will be seen in local races and congressional races where you have smaller electorates and adding a few thousand people one way or another to a group of potential voters could really make a difference,” DeSipio said.

The current naturalization delays could lengthen still further if USCIS furloughs more than two-thirds of its staff — as officials have warned they’ll do on Aug. 30 unless Congress provides a $1.2 billion bailout to the agency.

DeSipio said the furloughs, which would impact 2,300 USCIS employees in California, could mean immigrants will wait more than three years to become American citizens. By that point, some applicants may have died or given up on the process, he said.

“I mean, that's criminal, really,” he said. “It's violating the compact that we have with immigrants in U.S. society that if you play by the rules ... we’ll give (you) a fair hearing.”

Another factor in the delays is that applying for citizenship has become more burdensome under the Trump administration, in part because USCIS officials have increased vetting and scrutiny for each petition, according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Magdalena Olvera, an immigration legal assistant, looks at an Application for Naturalization at her home office on July 24, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The survey of more than 100 naturalization service providers found evidence that naturalization interviews have increased in length, and that the agency often requires applicants to submit additional documentation proving tax compliance and other requirements.

“It's not just that it's taking longer. It's more difficult and frustrating,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, and the report’s lead author. “And it's more intimidating. It may intimidate people from applying because the process has become harder.”

Collins, the USCIS spokeswoman, said the agency reached an 11-year high in new oaths of citizenship in 2019, and she said the agency aimed to protect the integrity of the immigration system.

“Ensuring that candidates for citizenship are well-vetted and meet all statutory and regulatory requirements for naturalization is a standard on which USCIS cannot and will not waver,” she said.

Another green card holder waiting to become a citizen is Ivan, a 40-year-old asylee from Mexico, who submitted his application in the spring of 2019. He requested KQED withhold his last name because he worried that speaking publicly about his petition might jeopardize it.

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Ivan, who’s a social worker at the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, said he hopes to encourage other eligible immigrants in San Francisco to naturalize. And he wants to have a say in the political process.

“I would like to join citizens to vote so that my voice is there, too,” Ivan said. “It’s one of the ways that I can better support my community.”

Ivan said his naturalization interview was canceled in March, but he hopes it will be rescheduled soon.

“If it’s before the election, nice. If not, that’s OK, I’ll have to wait,” Ivan said.

Olvera, the legal assistant, was less forgiving. She said she won’t feel secure until she becomes an American, especially under this administration. She worries her green card could be taken away, and avoids participating in protests for fear an arrest by police could lead to problems with immigration authorities.

“It’s just always in the back of my head that I’m not a citizen and that my stay here may not be permanent,” she said.

In past elections, Olvera volunteered at polling places. She plans to do so again if she can’t naturalize before November.

“I think it’s really important for me to participate,” she said. “If I can't vote, I guess I can participate by helping other people vote.”