As election nears, some would-be voters frustrated by citizenship delays

Alfredo De Jesus is a green card holder who applied for U.S. citizenship at the beginning of the year.
Alfredo De Jesus is a green card holder who applied for U.S. citizenship at the beginning of the year, but because of delays in processing, he will not naturalize in time to vote next week.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diegan Alfredo De Jesus applied to become a U.S. citizen toward the beginning of 2020 — as soon as he was eligible.

He thought his application would be processed in plenty of time to vote in this year’s election. But he’s still waiting.

De Jesus is among many citizens-to-be whose applications stalled in large part because of COVID-19. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for processing naturalizations, shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic for several months and is still working to catch up.


De Jesus said he feels frustrated and disappointed.

“People like me, we have been really getting ready for becoming a U.S. citizen in order for us to be heard, to do what is supposed to be our obligation or responsibility,” De Jesus said, “but because of this pandemic, now we’re not going to be part of this big event.”

At the end of March, right after the pandemic shut down much of the country, there were more than 678,600 citizenship applications pending, including about 3,500 from members of the U.S. military, according to agency data. Nearly 13,300 of those were at the San Diego office.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services hasn’t yet released more recent data.

Maria Elena Upson, spokeswoman for the agency, said that while it was closed from March 18 through June 3, the agency managed to process 6,935 applications.

Since reopening, she said, the agency first prioritized ceremonies to swear in the roughly 110,000 people who were already approved and had their oath ceremonies canceled during the pandemic shutdown. That task took about 10 weeks.

The agency has processed more than 241,500 naturalizations since reopening, Upson said. The process requires several steps, including getting fingerprinted, taking a test and being interviewed, before someone can be sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

That’s still a reduction in processing speed from recent years because of ongoing guidelines about safety in office space during the pandemic.

Based on a Union-Tribune analysis of the agency’s data, officials have averaged about 60,000 to 69,000 applications per month in recent years, depending on the year. Upson noted that fiscal 2019 was a record year for the agency in the number of naturalizations, at about 834,000.

Since the reopening, the average has been just over 48,000 applications per month.

It is not clear how many additional people might have submitted applications since March or exactly how many are pending now.

“Citizenship applications continue to be a priority for USCIS, and we strive to complete them as efficiently as possible,” Upson said. “We are conducting naturalization interviews and are committed to conducting as many interviews as we can in a manner that is safe for our staff and for the public.”

For immigrants like De Jesus, the slowdown means that it will be another four years before they are able to vote in a presidential election in the country they call home.

De Jesus came to San Diego from Veracruz, Mexico, in 2012 to visit family.

While here, he revealed to a friend that he was being harassed by police back in Mexico because he is gay. His friend told him that he might be able to apply for asylum.

Because De Jesus was already in the United States on a visa, he was able to request asylum through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rather than immigration courts. A couple of years later, an asylum officer granted him protection.

When asylum seekers become asylees, they are given a special visa that, after one year, can be updated to a green card. Then they must wait five years to apply for U.S. citizenship.

As De Jesus made his way through the process, he found work in a Hillcrest pharmacy as a patient advocate, a job that he loves. And he loves the support that he feels in San Diego for both of the communities that he identifies with — the Latino community and the gay community.

It is his membership in the Latino community that particularly makes him want to be able to vote. He said he knows many fellow Latinos who don’t see the point in it. He tells them that he thinks voting is important, and he wants to set an example.

“If we don’t vote, we are just giving up hope and giving up to the things that we don’t really want to happen,” De Jesus said. “The only way to be heard is by voting. That’s a big privilege. Not all of us have it.”

De Jesus got help with his citizenship application from Alliance San Diego. The organization was gearing up at the beginning of 2020 to launch a program focused on helping eligible immigrants naturalize in time to vote this election.

Clients call often to ask about their cases, said Michelle Celleri, an attorney with Alliance San Diego.

“They reach out, and they ask, ‘When is my case going to be processed? How long is this taking?’ and there’s no real answers I can give them because the government doesn’t even know,” Celleri said. “And so there’s a little bit of anxiety. Lots of people’s plans are being placed on hold.”

De Jesus’ application was the first that her organization sent off to the agency this year, so that means none of her clients has made it through processing yet.

If he could vote, De Jesus said, he would be voting Democrat because he believes that President Trump is hurting his communities. He acknowledged that in a state like California where there is little doubt in the polls about the outcome for president, his vote might not be missed as much as it could be elsewhere. But he still wants to participate.

And there are plenty of would-be citizens waiting for their applications to be processed in places that analysts are watching closely as potential swing states. The backlog in those states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin — was nearly 242,300 at the end of March. Before the pandemic, it had already grown 7% since the end of fiscal 2019, slightly more than growth of pending cases nationally, at about 5%.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.