Death by a Thousand Cuts: Naturalization Backlogs

The Trump administration’s war on immigration has included an array of tactics. There have been full frontal assaults, such as the Muslim ban, cancellation of DACA, the border wall, and the RAISE Act. Simultaneously, the Trump administration is using the tactic of death by a thousand cuts: numerous assaults in the administrative agencies and courts intended to make immigration slower, more expensive, and painful. Here’s but one example.

A report by the National Partnership for New Americans shows two remarkable trends. First, across the U.S., there is a significant spike in naturalization applications, increasing by over 35% since Fiscal Year 2015. In the last two years, some 2 million eligible lawful permanent residents (green card holders) have applied to become U.S. citizens. There’s anecdotal evidence that the current anti-immigrant climate and increased immigration enforcement have led more immigrants to apply for naturalization as a way to protect their families and empower themselves to vote.

Second, the backlogs of pending applications have exploded, increasing by 77% in the past two years. The average processing time has almost doubled, from about 5 months to almost 9 months today. In some regions, the application process can now take over one year.

Why is the backlog growing even faster than the uptick in applicants? One reason is that due to an Obama-era initiative the naturalization application has doubled to 20 pages, so it takes more time to review each application. Further, NPNA alleges that the Trump administration may be slow-walking citizenship applications for purposes of voter suppression, although the NPNA cites direct no evidence for this.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the applications, says it is enlisting officers to work overtime and seeking to fill vacancies, noting “there is no quick fix” for the delays. Funding shouldn’t be an issue because the $725 filing fee for a naturalization application was set by the agency to cover all expenses related to adjudication of an application.

NPNA recommends that Congress explore the causes of naturalization backlogs, and whether any of the delays are intentional.

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