Originally published by The NY Times
Ten minutes and an oath. That’s all that stands between me and American citizenship. After filling out a 20-page application, paying almost a thousand dollars, organizing piles of supporting documents, planning my life around five years of residency requirements and waiting another two – as well as F.B.I. background checks, InfoPass appointments and a civics test – 10 minutes and the recitation of 140 words is all I need.
But I have no idea when that will be. After I was approved for citizenship in March, I expected to have my ceremony in May. But I’m still waiting for my notice from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or U.S.C.I.S., the federal agency in charge of processing immigration applications. And given that the agency is only conducting oath ceremonies in small, socially distanced groups or drive-through ceremonies, refusing to consider remote ceremonies to help clear the backlog and facing a budget crisis that might require it to furlough 70 percent of its staff in August, I’m stuck in an indefinite limbo.
Ten minutes and an oath is all that’s between me and the right to vote in a pivotal election. I’d finally be able to travel freely and reunite with family and apply for federal jobs and citizen-exclusive opportunities like the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. For an estimated 126,000 would-be-citizens in waiting like me, it’s also a matter of livelihood in these urgent times: Supplemental Security Income only lasts seven years for noncitizens, and many apply for citizenship to remain eligible for benefits. Certain federal financial aid and research grants are for citizens only. And many decide to naturalize because their green cards are about to expire, and once they do, they can’t apply for unemployment or start a new job without a change in status.
According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, it’s possible that under current conditions, several hundred thousand people won’t be naturalized before the elections. Normally, an average of 63,000 applicants take the oath of allegiance every month. In Los Angeles, just one convention center could hold naturalization ceremonies for 10,000 people in a single day. Now, with social distancing guidelines, that’s down to hundreds – even with drive-through ceremonies. In Phoenix, U.S.C.I.S. started naturalizing 30 people a day in their parking lot, and last month, the agency’s Boston offices resumed ceremonies for groups of eight. Previously, these offices were able to hold ceremonies for groups of 200, in places like libraries and colleges.
To be clear, I’m glad U.S.C.I.S. is taking social distancing seriously. Even though I was looking forward to waving my little American flag with new citizens from all over the world, traditional oath ceremonies are now a health risk not worth the pomp and circumstance. But what is important is for U.S.C.I.S. to come up with a plan to conduct remote interviews. Shortening the ceremony isn’t enough when you’re only naturalizing a handful of people at a time. When U.S.C.I.S. was closed for three months, the backlog for oath ceremonies grew by an estimated 2,100 people a day. Last year around this time, from April 1 to June 30, 200,000 applicants were approved to be naturalized and due for their oath ceremony.
Fed up with this backlog, two Pennsylvania immigrants actually sued U.S.C.I.S. to ensure they’re naturalized before the state’s Oct. 19 voter registration deadline. The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees all federal agencies, sent a memo in late March directing agencies to use the breadth of available technology capabilities to fulfill service gaps.
In May, lawmakers from both parties also sent letters to the director of U.S.C.I.S., urging the agency to take all necessary measures and implement remote oath processes, or even to waive the requirement altogether. A letter from 14 members of Congress points to a federal law that grants individuals expedited oaths in place of usual ceremonies, when required by special circumstances. Surely, a pandemic counts.
But in response, U.S.C.I.S. officials ruled out remote oaths, saying that they presented security concerns and logistical challenges. This response did not sound like one coming from a country that usually values innovation and creativity. Their reasoning is also disingenuous. Security and logistical challenges have not stopped ICE from conducting deportation hearings via video.
Other countries have also figured out a way to address these concerns. Canada held 300 online citizenship ceremonies in one week in June and even took advantage of the technology to host a celebratory cross-country group ceremony for Canada Day. And Australia, with its own backlog of applicants, started one-on-one video ceremonies in April. They look absolutely delightful.
At U.S.C.I.S., it couldn’t be more clear that bureaucracy is wielded for political gain. The Trump administration has introduced rules and policies to make it harder for people to become citizens, and for anyone to gain any kind of legal immigration status. It tightened scrutiny of applicants, reportedly rejecting them for things as small as writing NA instead of N/A; made it harder for low-income immigrants to stay if they relied on food stamps or other assistance; and requested far more additional paperwork, the dreaded requests for evidence that create further delays before a final decision. They handicapped processing times by diverting staff to ICE and, if their goals couldn’t be more clear: They created a denaturalization task force.
Even before the pandemic, the processing rate for citizenship applications was the lowest in a decade. Wait times for applicants in 2019 doubled from two years prior. So while immigrants like me needlessly waited, the rising fees we paid were used to denaturalize some people and make the process harder for everyone else. Currently, an applicant in New York can wait up to 36 months to be naturalized, according to U.S.C.I.S.’s own estimates.
Ten minutes and an oath. For me and thousands of other immigrants who have gamely jumped through every hoop asked of us, that’s all that’s standing between us and citizenship. From an agency that has fairness and efficiency in its mission, we deserve this bare minimum of effort to relieve us from an unnecessary, never-ending wait.