36,000 immigrants in Florida won't get their citizenship in time to vote, data show

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EV Tech Giovanny Quero, employee of the Orange County Supervisor of Elections, sets up voting booths for early voting in the Community Room of the Winter Park Public Library, on Thursday, July 30, 2020. - Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

MIAMI — Up to 300,000 lawful permanent residents nationwide — about 36,000 of them in Florida — will be prevented from completing their naturalization process in time to vote in the upcoming November election, data show.

The staggering government data — analyzed by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Boundless Immigration, a non-partisan tech company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship — shows that immigration policies implemented by the Trump administration since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis slowed down naturalization applications, creating a record backlog in a time when naturalization applications have skyrocketed.

The desire to vote in November’s election, along with the fact that the administration will soon nearly double the naturalization application fee, has also pushed people to submit sooner than later, experts say.

Naturalization applications traditionally spike during presidential election years. The motivation: the ability to obtain U.S. citizenship in time to register to vote – an opportunity that about 36,000 immigrants in Florida won’t have unless federal officials expedite naturalization interviews and offer same-day naturalization oaths, advocates and immigration scholars say.

Under the previous administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers the country’s naturalization and immigration system, was given additional resources during the presidential election years of 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 to ensure that the agency was able to handle the influx of new naturalization applications.

In a report released Thursday by Boundless, immigration data experts say the backlog in is a result of the government’s policy framework and a broad attack on the immigration system, which has included more than 400 executive actions during Trump’s presidency, as well as many lesser-known technical adjustments that have doubled the naturalization interview time and added new lines of questioning by USCIS. The data were first reported by The New York Times.

Some examples: “USCIS officials have newly put in place an unnecessary and onerous standard for adjudicating whether naturalization applicants have the requisite ‘good moral character’ to become citizens,” the report said. “In some instances, USCIS has requested documentation for minor, decades-old offenses such as unpaid parking tickets or traffic violations.”

It’s new policies like those, along with rising fees and immigration office closures during the pandemic, that have slowed down naturalization adjudications, increased red-tape and created a skyrocketing naturalization backlog, which was at about 650,000 as of Oct 1. At the end of Obama’s term, the backlog was at 350,000.

USCIS data show that the average wait time for immigrants seeking to naturalize grew from an average of 5.6 months in 2016 to 10.3 months in 2018, 9.9 months in 2019 and an estimated 8.8 months in 2020. In some cases, naturalization applicants waited more than two years to complete the process. Before the pandemic, the time to process an application had doubled under Trump — averaging 10 months last year, according to Boundless, with much longer waits in some regions.

As of early October 2020, 93% of naturalization applicants in Florida could expect to wait an average of 26.5 months for their application to be processed. At the end of September, data showed that the government processed an average of 70,000 naturalization interviews a month. Last month, only 40,000 were processed.

“Instead of expediting applications during an election year, USCIS has implemented a number of policies that have drastically reduced the agency’s adjudication processes,” the report said.

“Through creating intentional roadblocks to naturalization, USCIS officials appear to have created a novel form of voter suppression that is preventing hundreds of thousands of would-be citizens from participating for the first time in American democracy. In doing so, USCIS is setting a dangerous precedent that could make it harder for future immigrants to obtain citizenship and voting rights.”

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, USCIS closed its field offices to all in-person services, precipitating a dramatic reduction in the agency’s operations. Without in-person services, all applications requiring interviews, including naturalization applications, were initially suspended. Naturalization oath ceremonies for applicants that had successfully completed the naturalization process were also suspended.

Administration of oaths were not conducted remotely via video-conference, telephone or via socially distanced in-person visits. Same-day naturalization oaths were also not an option, all factors contributing to the backlog, the report said. Over the summer, some offices partially reopened with a very limited number of appointment slots.

“It is impossible to know what impact USCIS’ naturalization policies could have on an unexpectedly close presidential election in a state like Florida, which was infamously decided by 537 votes in the 2000 presidential election,” the report said.

“Each day that goes by without the expeditious processing of naturalization adjudications combined with the common-sense use of technology to facilitate remote naturalization oaths represents the effective disenfranchisement of thousands of would-be voters.”


©2020 Miami Herald