“Citizenship Delayed: Civil and Voting Rights Implications of the Backlog in Citizenship and Naturalization Applications”

U.S. law has established an advisory committee in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia to advise the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights of civil rights issues in their states. The state commissions are asked to advise the Commission of any alleged deprivation of voting rights and discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin or in the administration of justice. 

In September of 2019, The Colorado State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights transmitted their report on the implications of the backlog in citizenship and naturalization applications. The report indicated that the national backlog in naturalization applications is over 738,000 and that the national average wait times range from 10 months to three years. In Miami, the average wait time (according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service) is 7.5 to 21 months.  My experience confirms backlogs of this length. The introduction to this report briefly discusses the impact of the delays “The substantial delay to naturalization created by the backlog negatively impacts voting rights, civil rights, and the administration of justice. The effect on voting rights is obvious; the right to vote depends on completing the naturalization process. By the time this report is released, applications in the queue for citizenship will not be processed in time for applicants to participate in the 2020 presidential elections. Immigrants, whose eligibility for employment and public benefits hinges on citizenship, may have their civil rights negatively impacted by the backlog…….The existence of such a substantial backlog of naturalization applications and wait times raises concerns about the administration of justice and whether immigrants’ due process rights are being violated.” 

The report points out that since 2016, the processing times have almost doubled for all applications. Backlogs and policy changes made in October 2017 to Military Naturalization applications resulted in a drop of almost 65 % in the first quarter of fiscal year 2018 compared to the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2017. According to this report, these changes have “led to an effective end to the military’s expedited track to citizenship.” 

It should be pointed out (which many people find surprising) that the governmental costs of processing naturalization application are 95% funded by the naturalization application fees which are currently $ 725.  When processing costs rise, the fees are increased to pay for the processing costs.

Because the right to vote requires a legal permanent resident to complete the naturalization process, the excessive backlog results in disenfranchisement of otherwise eligible voters. If one were to apply for naturalization now, there is a possibility (in Miami) that they may be naturalized prior to the October 5, 2020 deadline to register to vote in the Presidential election in 2020 but it is also equally possible that the process will not be completed in time to register to vote. Many civil rights are inherent in citizenship. These rights include eligibility for employment, housing and other public benefits. I have clients waiting for their citizenship so that they may apply for positions with the police or firefighters. We all need these legal permanent residents to be able to naturalize so that they may work to make us safer. 

This report suggests changes that may be made by the executive branch to streamline the process as well as providing recommended action for Congress which includes increased oversight of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services operations as well as additional temporary funding to address the backlog. The report points out that “While Congressional appropriations current only account for 5 % of the USCIS budget, this additional appropriation approach succeeded in eliminating the backlog between 2002 and 2010 but no funds have been appropriated for backlog elimination purposes since June 2010.”  Congress should again appropriate funds to reduce the backlog to safeguard our civil and voting rights. 

Linda M Kaplan
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