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Originally published by LA Times


Azra Nazir had a dress picked out, gray and blue. She had the subway directions. And in a rarity over two decades as an emergency room nurse, the 59-year-old had a few days off – her first in months of battling the coronavirus at its epicenter in Brooklyn.

After 20 years in the United States, where she secured asylum after leaving her native Pakistan, she would attend the ceremony at the end of March, raise her right hand, and become an American citizen at last.

God made everything perfect for me, Nazir said she thought.

Then, a few days before the scheduled day, she received a notice: Her oath ceremony had been canceled.

Corona was at the peak, so I was just trying to think: ‘OK, God … at least I am alive,’ she said. That was the compensation at that time, because it was really very depressing in those days.

Three months later, on Tuesday, when New York held its primary election, she couldn’t vote.

On Friday, she finally was able to take the oath.

I’m relieved, she said with a smile.

When her citizenship ceremony was postponed in March, Nazir became one of more than 110,000 green card holders whose applications for citizenship had been approved but who could not take the oath because Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that administers the U.S. legal immigration system, had canceled in-person ceremonies amid coronavirus.

Since then, as states have started to ease restrictions, the agency has restarted ceremonies, keeping them short and small and cutting the backlog to fewer than 65,000, according to USCIS spokesman Joe Sowers.

Now, rather than a jumbo screen and 10,000 would-be citizens packed into the Los Angeles Convention Center, some Angelenos are becoming Americans in drive-through ceremonies.

But with a backlog of more than 675,000 citizenship applications, the agency and the immigrants it serves now face another huge problem: A $1.2-billion budgetshortfall threatens to force furloughs, or a total shutdown, just months shy of most states’ voter registration deadlines for the November election.

USCIS is a fee-based agency – by law, nearly all its funds come from the programs it administers. With the Trump administration having targeted legal immigration, not just illegal border crossings, and the coronavirus having further reduced fee-generating services, the agency is out of money.

The administration has threatened to furlough some 13,400 USCIS personnel – about 70% of its total employees – and began issuing furlough notices last week, warning it will effectively shut down the agency if it doesn’t get emergency funds from Congress.

USCIS will not have sufficient funding to maintain operations through the end of the fiscal year, Russell T. Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote to Congress this month.

Outside critics and some current and former officials say that’s just how the White House wants it. The current crisis, they say, was not just inevitable, but intentional.

I would not be surprised if a very large number of people end up not getting naturalized in time for the election, said Doug Rand, a cofounder of Boundless Immigration, a company that assists with immigration applications, and a former Obama administration official.

By one count, the Trump administration has changed USCIS policy 182 times in less than four years. Because the changes have curbed legal immigration – and therefore USCIS fees – they have led to more than $500 million in revenue lost annually, according to America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group.

From President Trump’s first year in office through 2019, applications to USCIS by U.S. citizens seeking to bring immediate relatives to the U.S. fell by almost 30%.

The administration has also implemented new wealth test policies to keep out poor migrants, rejecting those who might use, or whose U.S. citizen children might use, public benefits.

On Monday, the White House moved to block many nonimmigrant employment-based visas through the end of the year.

And the latest restriction, issued Friday, effectively doubles the amount of time asylum seekers must wait for work authorization, or denies it altogether in some cases, such as when they move to a new address.

Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy, said in an agency-wide memo on Tuesday obtained by The Times that offices would start sending furlough notices within the week.

Due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we have needed to make some hard decisions, Edlow said. Rest assured, we continue to work with members of Congress, in conjunction with DHS leadership, in our efforts to secure the assistance needed to continue agency operations.

The White House has not yet formally submitted a request to the House Appropriations Committee for the money, Evan Hollander, a committee spokesperson, said.

Not even my dystopian mind envisioned this, said one USCIS employee who received a furlough notice Friday, requesting anonymity to protect against retaliation.

Azra Nazir’s story illustrates the hurdles that many immigrants have to surmount to become U.S. citizens. In many ways, Trump has made it even harder.

She arrived in New York for a nursing training program in 2000.

She had worked as a nurse in Pakistan for decades and had survived years of violent abuse by a superior in the Pakistani military. She sought asylum in the U.S.

I had in my mind of America that if you work … you can come live a good life, and you can live independent, you can live freely, she said. I live by myself; I have no fear for anybody.

A colleague sent her asylum case to Ava Benach, an immigration attorney based in Washington, D.C., who argued that the gender-based discrimination and violence Nazir had faced qualified her for asylum. They won.

Benach doesn’t think they’d win if the case were considered now, with gender-based persecution squarely in the crosshairs of administration hard-liners such as Stephen Miller, Trump’s main White House advisor on immigration policy.

For years, she and Nazir fell out of touch – except for a dozen candy apples Nazir, who is Muslim, would send Benach every Christmas. Then, in late 2019, Nazir reached out again.

I applied for citizenship – three years ago, she told Benach.

Nazir explained she’d applied just before the 2016 election, and was interviewed roughly a year later – then heard nothing. By law, according to Benach, a decision is required in four months.

They sued USCIS.

There was no legal basis to deny her citizenship, Benach said.

She is on the frontest of front lines, Benach said of her longtime client. When Trump says he wants to shut out immigrants, this is who he means.

For the decade before Trump took office, USCIS had weathered the ups and downs in its application numbers with cash reserves, keeping the part of its budget covered by Congress at 5% at the most, according to a recent report by Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst, both at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.

In fiscal 2018, USCIS received more than 1 million fewer applications than the year before, leading to a $152-million drop in revenues from fees. Last year, the agency lost another $13 million.

Even before the coronavirus, the administration was projecting a $1.2-billion shortfall for this year.

Last year, the agency adjudicated only a little over half of its applications. Processing time for a citizenship application has doubled under Trump compared to under President Obama.

The total backlog of all applications the agency receives has grown to 5.7 million cases at the end of March, the agency’s latest statistics show.

At the same time, the money the agency dedicated to rooting out fraud more than doubled under Trump, to $379 million, and for vetting, nearly tripled, to $149 million.

It’s because of these new policies – they’ve not only bled the budget, but … it’s like the agency is being set up to not do its own job anymore, and just be another arm of the fear machine, said a USCIS official, speaking anonymously out of concern about retaliation.

Sowers, the USCIS spokesman, said the agency will clear the citizenship backlog from COVID-19 by the end of July.

But with the agency typically averaging 3,000 naturalizations a day before the coronavirus, and now out of funds, the fate of tens of thousands of potential voters is far from guaranteed.

In a close election, these stalled citizens could be enough to swing a battleground state. But in some parts of the country, backlogs are so large that green card holders would have to have filed their application two years ago in order to be able to vote in November, according to a report Boundless Immigration did in May.

Lawmakers from both parties – including the children of naturalized citizens – have called on the administration to take all necessary measures, including virtual ceremonies, to ensure naturalizations go forward.

Nazir counts herself lucky – she got in under the wire. But many more likely will not.

Being able to vote, she said, I will be more free.

Still, she wonders why it had to take so long. Did I something wrong? You feel like you are being discriminated against.

For a brief moment Friday in New York, the scene looked familiar: A USCIS officer asked Nazir – and 11 others, at a distance – to raise their right hands.

With no family here, she said, I do not have anybody here to share my good news with. But when she goes into the emergency room tomorrow, she said, she will bring cake and surprise her colleagues, who don’t know her citizenship status.

She’ll tell them: Her long wait is over. She’s an American now.

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Originally published by The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court’s rejection of one of Donald Trump’s key immigration measures reignites a hot-button issue in a presidential campaign already scorched by pandemic, economic collapse and protests over police brutality and racial injustice.

The president is betting that he can energize his most loyal supporters by fighting the Supreme Court, which decided on procedural grounds Thursday that he couldn’t end legal protections for young immigrants. Trump, who often attempts to shift the nation’s focus to immigration when forced to defend himself on other fronts, said Friday he would renew his legal effort.

His immigration push is risky, even for someone who has built his political career on defying conventional wisdom. It could allow Trump to fire up his base on an issue that was a centerpiece of his 2016 victory while highlighting Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s struggle to win over Latino voters. But it could also further alienate swing voters including suburban women who could decide the election.

Some Republicans say that, with less than five months before November, it’s not a fight worth having.

It doesn’t make any political sense, or moral sense or ethical sense, said Republican strategist Tim Miller, a frequent Trump critic and veteran of Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential run. Anybody that likes (Trump) because of his willingness to ‘go there’ on racial and immigration issues is already with him, and he’s not picking up anybody else.

Still, Trump has built his presidency around hard-line immigration policies and a crackdown on the U.S.-Mexico border. He’s been eager to return to those themes after months of negative headlines about the coronavirus and an economy devastated by it.

The president plans to travel to Arizona next week to celebrate 200 miles of new border wall that has been completed during his term, and hold just his second rally after months of campaigning suspended amid more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19.

His decision to resume big rallies despite virus concerns is another example of his determination to transform an issue into a political fight his supporters can embrace.

But COVID and the border wall are different from the 8-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, which protects 650,000 people brought to the U.S. as children from deportation and authorizes them to work.

Polls show widespread support for the program known as DACA, as well as for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own.

Some Trump allies acknowledge worries about losing support among moderates. But the president and some of his aides argue that will be easily offset by excitement among steadfast conservatives.

Biden, meanwhile, has promised to send legislation to Congress codifying DACA on his first day as president, if elected. But he has also refused to back decriminalizing illegal border crossing, unlike Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other Democrats who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination.

Sanders routinely out-polled Biden among Latino voters during the primaries, helping power the senator’s big wins in Nevada and California, though Biden saw some improvement among Hispanics in places like Texas and Arizona.

Chuck Rocha was Sanders’ top aide on Latino outreach and has since launched a political action committee aimed at motivating Hispanic voters, especially in battleground states like Pennsylvania. He said he already has people in the film room and is planning to use the DACA decision – and the president’s vow to go back to court – to draw a contrast between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

There’s a motivation factor we worry about with younger Latinos who supported Bernie Sanders who are not onboard with Joe Biden yet, Rocha said. But these people went to school with these DACA recipients. These kids are friends with these DACA recipients. These people understand that their friends are just as much American as they are, so it really cuts at the heart of an emotional issue.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday that Democrats really seem to be using the DACA recipients as pawns for electoral purposes, adding, That is despicable.

Julia Rodriguez, a senior Biden campaign adviser, countered that Biden isn’t willing to lie quietly back while Trump continues to double down on his base. Instead, she said, Biden is reaching out to women voters, to young voters, to voters of color.

Trump and his campaign also have focused their response to the Supreme Court decision on their efforts to nominate more conservative justices to the Supreme Court. That’s despite the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, authored the DACA ruling.

Trump has used the federal courts as a powerful motivator before, stoking fears about possible Democratic picks. Conservatives had for years viewed gaining commanding representation on the federal bench as critical to slowing the nation’s cultural transformation, and Trump has largely delivered, appointing more judges than Barack Obama or any other recent president.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh says, Conservative judges were a huge issue in 2016 and will be again this November.

Marisa Franco, the Arizona-based cofounder of Mijente, a Latino organizing and activist political organization, said she sees the DACA decision — and Trump’s response — as an opportunity for Biden but that promising to send legislation to Congress isn’t enough.

I think he can go further and he must go further to actually solve these problems, Franco said. She said that federal agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement really parallel what we’re seeing in local police departments around the country. They are operating with blank checks with no accountability, and Biden needs to go in and he needs to clean house.


Associated Press Writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.

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Originally published by The NY Times

Carsten Kieffer, who moved to the United States from Denmark in 2007, applied for citizenship in August last year, convinced that he would take the oath in plenty of time to cast a ballot in the presidential election.

Scheduled for an interview on April 1, Mr. Kieffer, a paramedic in Florida, had been using an app on his phone to review the 100 possible questions on the oral civics test between responding to calls for rescues from burning buildings and overturned seaplanes. If he passed, he would attend a naturalization ceremony that same week in Orlando.

I had been memorizing it all; I felt like I was about to become a citizen, said Mr. Kieffer, 41, who has an American wife and two children.

As state after state imposed social distancing and other measures to mitigate the virus’s spread, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suspended most of its activity on March 18, and the agency notified Mr. Kieffer that his interview had been canceled.

Now Mr. Kiefer is among thousands of citizens-in-waiting who, amid a ballooning backlog, may be unable to complete their naturalizations in time to vote in the 2020 election. An estimated 650,000 citizenship applications were pending in the first quarter of the 2020 fiscal year, which ended Dec. 31.

The agency recently began holding naturalization ceremonies in small groups, compared with the hundreds who typically gather to be sworn in, but many of those working with immigrants say that so few are being processed that it may be impossible to make up for lost time this year.

Before the pandemic, about 63,000 applicants took the oath of allegiance each month in small-town courthouses and convention centers around the country. Covid-19 lockdowns postponed the final steps in the process – interviews and ceremonies – potentially delaying citizenship for several hundred thousand people before the end of 2020, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which leads a network of nonprofits helping green-card holders become naturalized citizens.

The delays caused by the pandemic follow moves by the Trump administration to tighten scrutiny of naturalization applications, making the process more cumbersome, as well as financial troubles engulfing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is expected to start furloughing workers in coming weeks.

I do not anticipate this administration will drop their emphasis on vetting and fraud detection to expedite these naturalization applications, said Randy Capps, who researches naturalization at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. It means this backlog will probably keep growing.

A group of lawful permanent residents whose applications have been approved by the U.S.C.I.S. office in Philadelphia but stalled because of the pandemic filed a lawsuit in federal court this month asking for an expedited process to ensure that they are sworn in as citizens by late September in order to meet voter-registration deadlines.

Naturalization applications generally surge during presidential election cycles, but the potential implications of clearing the way for thousands of new citizens to vote differ from state to state.

Polls have indicated that most Latin American and Asian immigrants, who most likely account for the majority of those whose citizenship petitions are pending, would tend to vote Democratic. In states like California, which is solidly blue, the addition of tens of thousands of newly minted voters would be unlikely to have a significant effect.

It could be a different story if potential voters were excluded in contested states, such as Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas. Nearly 200,000 immigrants became citizens in those four states in the 2018 fiscal year, according to official data, representing 26 percent of those naturalized that year.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks have urged U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to administer the oath remotely or waive it altogether.

Senators Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, who are both sons of naturalized citizens, sent a letter on May 22 to Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, who heads the agency, requesting that he take all necessary measures to enable naturalizations to proceed, including with virtual ceremonies.

Then, earlier this month, 14 members of Congress from both parties sent a letter of their own, calling the oath largely ceremonial and citing a law that could be invoked to justify temporarily suspending it.

Given the unprecedented circumstances currently facing our country, we ask that these authorities be utilized to remotely administer or waive the Oath of Allegiance amid the Covid-19 pandemic, said the letter.

A spokesman for U.S.C.I.S. said that rescheduling naturalization ceremonies was a top priority as we enter our phased reopening, which began on June 4. The agency had introduced ceremonies with social distancing last month, and the sessions are starting to be held more frequently, he said.

However, he ruled out remote oaths. The ceremonies must be public under immigration law, he said, and to comply with federal regulations, all applicants must appear in person.

The spokesman also said that online ceremonies presented logistical challenges because personal appearances allow reviewers to verify applicants’ identities and collect their green cards, which previously served as proof of legal residency. Holding the ceremonies online also raised security concerns, he added.

Many of those who work with immigrants seeking naturalization said there was a need for flexibility during a health emergency.

There is legal room for U.S.C.I.S. to make appropriate accommodations for remote oath ceremonies, but it takes will and interest to do so, said Ur Jaddou, who was chief counsel at the agency during the Obama administration.

All around the government, agencies have made bold accommodations in response to Covid-19, said Ms. Jaddou, who is now director of D.H.S. Watch, an advocacy organization that monitors immigration agencies.

While there have been partisan splits over how to address unauthorized immigration and overhaul the country’s immigration system, historically there has been a bipartisan embrace of naturalization. Former President George W. Bush has hosted a ceremony at his institute.

Under President Trump, who has issued a series of policies to curb legal immigration, the leadership of the agency – which handles visas, green cards and asylum claims, in addition to citizenship applications – has adopted a policy of strict scrutiny when adjudicating applications.

About nine million legal permanent residents are eligible for citizenship, but a much smaller number typically apply.

Applicants must fill out a 20-page application, pass background checks, submit an array of supporting documents, and pass civics and English tests as well as an interview. They pay a $725 fee. If they hire a lawyer, the additional cost ranges from $1,500 to $3,500.

Ana Maria Schwartz, an immigration lawyer in Houston, has a dozen clients waiting to recite the oath. They hail from Brazil, Bulgaria, Ecuador, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela and Vietnam, among other countries.

It takes courage to apply for citizenship, Ms. Schwartz said. For some it means giving up citizenship in their countries of birth. It is sometimes not an easy decision to make, and now they are in legal limbo and no one from the government is stepping forward to tell them how and when it will all be over.

One of her clients, Dardan Qorraj, an immigrant from Kosovo, applied for citizenship in September last year and passed his interview in February. He had been scheduled to take the oath in San Antonio in late March, only to be informed two days before the designated day that the ceremony had been canceled because of the pandemic.

I was really worried because I didn’t know how long it was going to take, said Mr. Qorraj, 29, who works as a driver in Austin.

But Mr. Qorraj was invited to attend one of the first ceremonies that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services held under its new pandemic guidelines. He was instructed to wear a mask and to carry his own pen for signing documents. No family or friends would be allowed to accompany him.

After checking in at a tent with workers wearing face coverings and gloves, he was directed to a room where 10 people sat in chairs positioned six feet apart from one another. A government official ordered the group to rise, and led them in the Pledge of Allegiance. The ceremony was over in 10 minutes.

For Mr. Qorraj, who witnessed atrocities, repression and a ruined economy as a child during the war in Kosovo, being an American assures him that he is safe and free, he said.

It’s a great privilege that I will be able to vote. Honestly, I don’t know who I am going to vote for, said Mr. Qorraj. He said he would support the candidate who is committed to building a country much different from the one he left.

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Originally published by The LA Times

As leader of one of the most confused, inconsistent and impulsive administrations in American history, President Trump has at least managed to be consistent in one area: his drive to reduce immigration to as thin a trickle as he can. Last week, he took yet more steps to limit access to the U.S. by people fearing for their safety in their own countries – and once again moved against our history as a nation of refuge, while also seeming to defy U.S. and international laws protecting the rights of the desperate to seek asylum from persecution in their home countries.

The most recent steps come in 161 pages of proposed changes in rules covering a wide swath of asylum law, including potentially barring relief to anyone who has passed through two countries before reaching the U.S. or who spent 14 days or more in one other country prior to arriving here. The administration also wants to bar asylum to anyone who has failed to timely pay taxes due the U.S. government or who has been unlawfully present in the U.S. for a year or more.

It wants immigration judges to weigh someone’s illegal presence in the U.S. against them even though federal law specifically says people can seek asylum by crossing any part of the border and asking for it. And in addition to making fewer people eligible for asylum, it would give officers more power to deny initial asylum claims preemptively, with no need of a court hearing. That would shift an important determination about asylum eligibility from immigration courts to the front-line screeners and is likely a violation of the due-process guarantees that protect everyone in this country, citizen or not.

And on the changes go. The unifying theme here is that Trump, who effectively closed off cross-border access to the U.S. in March as a defense against the spreading coronavirus (too little, too late), wants to permanently limit asylum. Beyond the inherent inhumanity of closing our ears to people asking for protection, the administration is unilaterally undoing decades of U.S. asylum law. Whether Trump has that authority is a matter for the courts, where his lawyers have been spending an awful lot of time defending cockamamie and outrageous moves by the would-be emperor.

The immigration system in this country has been problematic for decades, marred by outdated laws that do not properly address the changing demands of immigration and inconsistent enforcement that, under Trump, has often been inhumane. There are sincere policy discussions to be had over whether we should rebalance the entry criteria to allow more employment-based admissions and reduce the focus on family reunification. Another thorny issue is what to do with people who have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade in most cases while playing a vital role in the economy, forging community bonds and often raising, with partners who are U.S. citizens, American-born children.

Then there are the Dreamers – people who have lived in the U.S. since arriving as children, who were educated and raised as Americans, and who face deportation often to countries where they don’t speak the language. Congress has failed for years to address that problem – the Dreamers deserve a path to citizenship – and President Obama sought to give them temporary protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump has ordered ended despite pledges to do something for the Dreamers. The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next few weeks on whether DACA will survive.

The proper fix here is comprehensive immigration reform. That Congress – well before Trump – has failed to enact such reform is a testament to its general dysfunction. Trump has, incongruously enough, displayed how badly the system needs reforming, but he’s also shown no interest in teaming with Congress to do it. As we have made clear, this president needs to be ousted. We can only hope that the next administration not only undoes these horrific policies and regulations, but also works with Congress to get the progress on immigration reform the nation has been clamoring for for decades.

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