Delayed naturalization could keep many from polls

Hundreds of thousands of potential voters will be ineligible to cast ballots in November unless the Trump administration resumes citizenship ceremonies and clears a pandemic-related backlog of immigrants waiting to take the naturalization oath, according to rights groups and lawmakers from both major political parties.

President Donald Trump, who claims falsely that millions of immigrants vote illegally in U.S. elections, now has the ability to effectively deny a large number of foreign-born Americans from becoming legally eligible to register before the next presidential election.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the oath of citizenship to an about 63,000 applicants per month, according to the agency’s latest statistics. The in-person ceremonies are the final hurdle immigrants must clear before registering to vote as naturalized U.S. citizens.

USCIS closed its offices in mid-March amid the coronavirus outbreak and canceled nearly all naturalization ceremonies, which often draw the family members of newly designated citizens. Although the USCIS is scheduled to begin a phased reopening next week, the agency has not committed to resuming a full slate of ceremonies, nor has it publicly released a plan for rescheduling the approximately 150,000 naturalizations that have been postponed because of the closures.

Joseph Edlow, deputy director for policy at the USCIS, has resisted calls from lawmakers with both parties to begin allowing applicants to take the oath virtually. In response to an inquiry from The Washington Post, USCIS officials said canceled ceremonies will be rescheduled “on a case-by-case basis,” declining to detail how many have been scheduled for coming weeks.

Another challenge: The fee-funded agency is running out of money because it suspended most services during the pandemic. Last week, the agency laid off 1,000 contractors, and Edlow told USCIS employees in an email Tuesday that staff furloughs will begin in July absent a cash infusion from Congress. The USCIS has asked lawmakers for $1.2 billion in emergency funding.

“Naturalizing new United States citizens is a critical benefit we administer at USCIS and we’re working hard to resume that process,” Edlow said in a statement. “However, we will not ignore federal law, which has clear in-person requirements for naturalization, in the name of convenience or expediency.”

Edlow said that his staff has started conducting smaller ceremonies that meet social distancing requirements, but that capacity will remain limited.

“The rate of these new ceremonies are increasing as our workforce becomes more adept at implementing them for larger groups and when appropriate health and safety precautions can be followed,” he said.

Naturalizations reached an 11-year high last year, Edlow noted.

Critics of the Trump administration say there has been no detectable urgency to get citizenship processing back on track in time for state voter registration deadlines this fall.

“To be fair, there are logistical challenges, but that is not same as an insurmountable obstacle,” said Doug Rand, an immigration policy adviser to the Obama administration. “The entire country is conducting its business virtually now, at a scale that is unprecedented. . . . For them to say it can’t be done doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

Rand’s firm, Boundless Immigration, calculates that more than 400,000 potential voters will be ineligible this November if citizenship processing remains essentially frozen. That includes immigrants whose ceremonies have been canceled as well as new applicants who will not be able to schedule one in time.

“In the worst-case scenario, this is a deliberate effort to disenfranchise people who are perceived to be voters for the other team,” Rand continued. “Best-case scenario, this is a federal agency slow-walking the administration of citizenship to a population that obviously deserves” the rights that come along with the status.

Sen. Marco Rubi, R-Fla., and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., sent a letter last week to Ken Cuccinelli, the USCIS acting director, asking him to “take all necessary measures” to safely resume naturalization ceremonies, “including remotely administering oaths of allegiance and expanding small in-person ceremonies, in accordance with preventive measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local public health authorities.”

A similar letter is being drafted in the House by Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., according to a congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the effort isn’t yet public.

A USCIS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to describe the reopening plans said the agency’s field offices would begin sending notices to applicants to reschedule canceled citizenship ceremonies. The ceremonies will be smaller and shorter in duration, the official said, with attendance limited to applicants. Those rules will allow the agency to complete in-person oath requirements as quickly and safely as possible, the official said.

Matthew La Corte, a policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a Washington-based think tank that favors more immigration, said the smaller ceremonies amount to “Band-Aid, tiny solutions.”

“While they are really great for those newly naturalized citizens who can participate in them, we’re talking about a drop in the bucket,” he said, noting that they will lead “to a ballooning backlog” with more potential voters unable to complete the citizenship process in time for voter registration deadlines this fall.

USCIS officials said another reason they cannot conduct virtual ceremonies is that applicants are briefly interviewed by staff members before naturalization, and that they must submit a form on the day of the ceremony attesting that they remain eligible for citizenship. Applicants also are required to surrender their green cards before the ceremonies.

The agency has no mechanism for administering the forms or physically collecting the green cards under pandemic conditions, officials said. The budget crisis has left the USCIS with no money to set up alternative systems on the fly, officials said.

La Corte said he remains skeptical: “The logistical concerns about collecting green cards can be figured out. We send a lot of sensitive things in the mail.”

Ruby Robinson, managing attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, an advocacy group, said dozens of people with pending oath ceremonies have contacted his organization with more than voter registration on their minds.

“They are anxious,” he said. “Maybe their green card is expiring and they don’t want to pay another $540 to renew it, especially if they’ve lost their job or are on unemployment.”

A Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Data published in February estimated that 23 million naturalized citizens will be eligible to vote in November, the most ever and equal to about 10% of the U.S. electorate. The percentage of immigrants made eligible to vote through naturalization has increased 93% since 2000, the Pew estimates show.

Hispanic immigrants accounted for 34% of foreign-born eligible voters in 2018, according to the study, while Asian immigrants represent 31% of immigrant voters. Both groups tend to favor Democrats, and more recent surveys indicate that the trend has accelerated under the administration of Trump, who has made restricting legal and illegal immigration a major theme of his presidency.

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