WASHINGTON — Gaining citizenship is a long, expensive and complicated process — one that has gotten more so under the Trump administration.
As the system currently stands, it can take 10 years or more for a person who entered the United States on a visa to become a citizen. Just getting a green card can take at least five years. Becoming eligible to apply for citizenship as a permanent resident after that? Another five years.
If you get to that stage, you then fill out the N-400 form, submit it with a $640 filing fee and then ready yourself for the civics test, biometric appointment and potential further vetting. After clearing those last hurdles, you are home free — a bona fide U.S. citizen.
Except, for an increasing number of people, that process never really takes off.
Around 700,000 applications for citizenship remained pending at the end of 2019 — and wait times have doubled over the past two years to almost three years, according to a September report by the Colorado State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“The substantial delay to naturalization created by the backlog negatively impacts voting rights, civil rights and the administration of justice,” the report’s authors write.
A backlog results when the number of applications coming in exceed the ones processed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff, who are tasked with adjudicating immigration benefits. Citizenship applications tend to spike before general elections, so throughout history, there have been crests and troughs in backlogs as the agency tries to catch up to the fluctuating heap of incoming applications.
The most recent uptick in pending applications started during the Obama administration. According to Eric Cohen, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, technological updates instituted by the administration — meant to speed the processing along — actually led to delays due to unforeseen bugs. According to a 2017 report to Congress, the electronic platform initially faced “multiple technical problems, which negatively impacted processing times.”
The 2016 election year saw more applications than expected, as people rushed to apply before candidate Donald Trump could fulfill anti-immigration promises as president, so despite the technical hiccups demand continued to rise.
“It is my understanding that they underestimated the bump (in applications),” says Cohen, whose organization oversees the New American Campaign, a coalition of 150 organizations that provide legal help with naturalizations.
“The Trump effect was more profound than expected.”
The number of pending applications actually doubled under the Obama administration, from around 300,000 in 2010 to around 700,000 in early 2017, when Trump took office. Fast forward two years, at the end of fiscal 2019, when the administration boasted about its processing progress.
“The men and women of USCIS continue to administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, processing a large number of applications and requests while naturalizing 833,000 new U.S. citizens, an 11-year high,” Ken Cuccinelli, then serving as the acting director of USCIS, touted in an end-of-the-year email.
But on the back end, delays compound the backlog, critics say.
The failure to resolve them is partly the result of a tepid response on the part of the Trump administration to the surge in naturalization applications, according to some.
Cohen mentions two other contributing factors causing delays: more interviews and additional vetting, even in cases where neither is needed. He says he has heard stories of people vetted during the asylum process, then again when they sought to obtain their green cards, and then once more during the citizenship process. One elderly Iranian woman was so distraught during the final vetting that she broke down and withdrew her application, Cohen says.
“By doing super vetting, what you’re doing is discouraging people from applying, you’re giving people a really hard time during their interview process, and you’re taking much longer — 50 percent-plus longer,” he says. “Therefore, you’re doing fewer and fewer applications. So there are a lot of these bumps in the road that are there, I would say, purposely.”
USCIS maintains that it is “completing more citizenship applications, more efficiently and effectively — outperforming itself as an agency,” a spokesman said via email, and that “many factors relating to an individual’s case can affect processing times.”
In addition, the administration has put up what critics call the “second wall” — seemingly small rule changes, fee hikes and additional paperwork requirements that altogether make naturalization much more burdensome and prohibitive.
The one proposal advocates are most concerned about is a regulation that would, among other things, increase citizenship application fees from $640 to $1,170, and fees for green card applications from $1,225 to $2,195. It also would eliminate all fee waivers for these applications.
In a comment on the regulation, the National Partnership for New Americans, a group that helps immigrants naturalize, writes that the increase would leave tens of thousands of immigrants it serves unable to undergo naturalization. It is “undermining the civic and economic benefits that are a direct result of welcoming and naturalizing millions,” the organization writes.