Carsten Kieffer, who moved to the United States from Denmark in 2007, applied for citizenship in August, convinced that he would take the oath in plenty of time to cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election.
Scheduled for an interview April 1, Kieffer, a paramedic in Florida, had been using an app on his phone to review the 100 possible questions on the oral civics test between responding to calls for rescues from burning buildings and overturned seaplanes. If he passed, he would attend a naturalization ceremony that same week in Orlando.
“I had been memorizing it all; I felt like I was about to become a citizen,” said Kieffer, 41, who has an American wife and two children.
The coronavirus derailed his timetable.
As state after state imposed social distancing and other measures to mitigate the virus’ spread, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suspended most of its activity March 18, and the agency notified Kieffer that his interview had been canceled.
Now Kiefer is among thousands of citizens-in-waiting who, amid a ballooning backlog, may be unable to complete their naturalizations in time to vote in November. An estimated 650,000 citizenship applications were pending in the first quarter of the 2020 fiscal year, which ended Dec. 31.
The agency recently began holding naturalization ceremonies in small groups, compared with the hundreds who typically gather to be sworn in, but many of those working with immigrants say that so few are being processed that it may be impossible to make up for lost time this year.
Before the pandemic, about 63,000 applicants took the oath of allegiance each month in small-town courthouses and convention centers around the country. COVID-19 lockdowns postponed the final steps in the process — interviews and ceremonies — potentially delaying citizenship for several hundred thousand people before the end of 2020, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which leads a network of nonprofits helping green-card holders become naturalized citizens.
The delays caused by the pandemic follow moves by the Trump administration to tighten scrutiny of naturalization applications, making the process more cumbersome, as well as financial troubles engulfing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is expected to start furloughing workers in coming weeks.
“I do not anticipate this administration will drop their emphasis on vetting and fraud detection to expedite these naturalization applications,” said Randy Capps, who researches naturalization at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “It means this backlog will probably keep growing.”
A group of lawful permanent residents whose applications have been approved by the USCIS office in Philadelphia but stalled because of the pandemic filed a lawsuit in federal court this month asking for an expedited process to ensure that they are sworn in as citizens by late September in order to meet voter registration deadlines.
Naturalization applications generally surge during presidential election cycles, but the potential implications of clearing the way for thousands of new citizens to vote differ from state to state.
Polls have indicated that most Latin American and Asian immigrants, who most likely account for the majority of those whose citizenship petitions are pending, would tend to vote Democratic. In states like California, which is solidly blue, the addition of tens of thousands of newly minted voters would be unlikely to have a significant effect.
It could be a different story if potential voters were excluded in contested states, such as Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas. Nearly 200,000 immigrants became citizens in those four states in the 2018 fiscal year, according to official data, representing 26% of those naturalized that year.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks have urged USCIS to administer the oath remotely or waive it altogether.
Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who are both sons of naturalized citizens, sent a letter May 22 to Kenneth Cuccinelli, who heads the agency, requesting that he “take all necessary measures” to enable naturalizations to proceed, including with virtual ceremonies.
Then, earlier this month, 14 members of Congress from both parties sent a letter of their own, calling the oath “largely ceremonial” and citing a law that could be invoked to justify temporarily suspending it.
“Given the unprecedented circumstances currently facing our country, we ask that these authorities be utilized to remotely administer or waive the Oath of Allegiance amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the letter.
A spokesman for USCIS said that rescheduling naturalization ceremonies was a “top priority as we enter our phased reopening,” which began June 4. The agency had introduced ceremonies with social distancing last month, and the sessions are starting to be held more frequently, he said.
However, he ruled out remote oaths. The ceremonies must be public under immigration law, he said, and to comply with federal regulations, all applicants must appear in person.
The spokesman also said that online ceremonies presented “logistical challenges” because personal appearances allow reviewers to verify applicants’ identities and collect their green cards, which previously served as proof of legal residency. Holding the ceremonies online also raised security concerns, he added.
Many of those who work with immigrants seeking naturalization said there was a need for flexibility during a health emergency.
“There is legal room for USCIS to make appropriate accommodations for remote oath ceremonies, but it takes will and interest to do so,” said Ur Jaddou, who was chief counsel at the agency during the Obama administration.
“All around the government, agencies have made bold accommodations in response to COVID-19,” said Jaddou, who is now director of DHS Watch, an advocacy organization that monitors immigration agencies.
While there have been partisan splits over how to address unauthorized immigration and overhaul the country’s immigration system, historically there has been a bipartisan embrace of naturalization. Former President George W. Bush has hosted a ceremony at his institute.
Under President Donald Trump, who has issued a series of policies to curb legal immigration, the leadership of the agency — which handles visas, green cards and asylum claims in addition to citizenship applications — has adopted a policy of strict scrutiny when adjudicating applications.
About 9 million legal permanent residents are eligible for citizenship, but a much smaller number typically apply.
Applicants must fill out a 20-page application, pass background checks, submit an array of supporting documents and pass civics and English tests as well as an interview. They pay a $725 fee. If they hire a lawyer, the additional cost ranges from $1,500 to $3,500.
Ana Maria Schwartz, an immigration lawyer in Houston, has a dozen clients waiting to recite the oath. They hail from Brazil, Bulgaria, Ecuador, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela and Vietnam, among other countries.
“It takes courage to apply for citizenship,” Schwartz said. “For some it means giving up citizenship in their countries of birth. It is sometimes not an easy decision to make, and now they are in legal limbo, and no one from the government is stepping forward to tell them how and when it will all be over.”
One of her clients, Dardan Qorraj, an immigrant from Kosovo, applied for citizenship in September and passed his interview in February. He had been scheduled to take the oath in San Antonio in late March, only to be informed two days before the designated day that the ceremony had been canceled because of the pandemic.
“I was really worried because I didn’t know how long it was going to take,” said Qorraj, 29, who works as a driver in Austin, Texas.
But Qorraj was invited to attend one of the first ceremonies that USCIS held under its new pandemic guidelines. He was instructed to wear a mask and carry his own pen for signing documents. No family or friends would be allowed to accompany him.
After checking in at a tent with workers wearing face coverings and gloves, he was directed to a room where 10 people sat in chairs positioned 6 feet apart from one another. A government official ordered the group to rise and led them in the Pledge of Allegiance. The ceremony was over in 10 minutes.
For Qorraj, who witnessed atrocities, repression and a ruined economy as a child during the war in Kosovo, being an American assures him that he is safe and free, he said.
“It’s a great privilege that I will be able to vote. Honestly, I don’t know who I am going to vote for,” Qorraj said.
He said he would support the candidate who is committed to building a country much different from the one he left.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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