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Why is the U.S. so far behind on naturalizing new citizens?

Why is the U.S. so far behind on naturalizing new citizens?
A naturalization ceremony at the L.A. Convention Center in August. (Los Angeles Times)

Naturalization ceremonies are joyous events. They’re an occasion for new citizens — many of whom are longtime U.S. residents — to officially declare the United States as their home. They’re also a reminder that it is not birthplace or ethnicity that makes one an American, but a commitment to shared principles and values.

Encouraging permanent residents to become U.S. citizens traditionally has been an area of bipartisan agreement, even in the face of heated debates over immigration policy. So why is the country lagging behind in naturalizing aspiring Americans?

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Data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for processing naturalization applications, currently show a backlog of more than 750,000 people. That’s nearly double the number of pending applications that existed at the start of 2016, as pointed out in a report by the National Partnership for New Americans. Waiting time between applying for and receiving approval for citizenship used to be about six months; now it is closer to a year. Some USCIS processing centers, including Los Angeles, report that applicants could linger in naturalization limbo for nearly two years.

Some USCIS processing centers, including Los Angeles, report that applicants could linger in naturalization limbo for nearly two years.


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The problem predates the Trump administration. In the run-up to the 2016 election, a surge of people rushed to become citizens to vote that November. That’s typical of presidential election years, but USCIS seems to have found itself unprepared. During the more normal year of 2015, there were about 800,000 citizenship applications and the backlog at the end of that year (390,000) was only slightly larger than it was at the beginning. During 2016, however, there were more than 1 million applications and the backlog rose to about 640,000. As a result, many would-be citizens were shut out of voting.

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Today, however, the elections are long past and yet the application backlog has increased by another 117,000. Two years ago, one might have attributed the logjam to the challenges of hiring to meet unexpected demand. But now there’s been plenty of time to staff up. And yet, as members of Congress recently complained, field office staff has increased just 7% as the application backlog nearly doubled.

While some might point to scarce funding as the cause, USCIS is almost entirely self-sufficient; its funding comes primarily from immigration and naturalization application fees, not tax revenue. More applications should mean more resources. Despite this, USCIS has indicated it has no plans to add more adjudicators or expand its offices.

Slow-walking citizenship applications is of a piece with other worrisome actions by the Trump administration affecting legal immigration. It has, for example, hired several dozen lawyers and agents to ramp up Operation Janus — an effort to prosecute and strip citizenship from about 1,600 individuals (out of the more than 21 million naturalized citizens) who may have misled authorities on their naturalization application. There have also been efforts to discharge immigrants serving in the U.S. military who are part of a program that puts them on a path to citizenship. Currently the administration is writing rules to hinder naturalization for legal immigrants if anyone in their household — often U.S. citizens — utilized social services such as food stamps, children’s health insurance or the Affordable Care Act.

USCIS has also sometimes drifted from its service-oriented mission of adjudicating and processing immigration benefits. Emails exposed in a lawsuit in Boston, for instance, show the agency working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to schedule fake interviews to lure immigrants to appointments where they were arrested and some deported.

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In late July, 50 mayors and county executives signed a letter asking USCIS to reduce the citizenship application backlog. In August, immigrant and civil rights groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request to clarify the reasons for the ongoing delays. Shining a light on what’s happening inside USCIS will be key to resolving the naturalization backlog­ — but so will continued public pressure.

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Our country is in the midst of an important debate ­— one in which reasonable people can disagree — about what constitutes a just immigration system. Still, it is hard to find a legitimate reason for making would-be citizens endure long waits after they have jumped through all the hoops of eligibility.

Pramila Jayapal is the U.S. representative for Washington’s 7th Congressional District. Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor, directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC.

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