Over the past four years, the Trump administration has made significant changes to policies and procedures related to immigrant naturalization. These changes have stifled naturalization, making the already burdensome process even more difficult for applicants.
Ultimately, the Trump administration’s legacy on naturalization is defined by changes to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) fees and waivers, the ballooning naturalization backlog, and the administration’s inaction in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Changes to USCIS fees and waivers
All immigrants applying for naturalization are required to pay an application fee. In November 2019, USCIS proposed increasing the fee from $640 to $1170 — an 83 percent hike.
The proposed rule also sought to eliminate fee waivers, further discouraging naturalization applications, especially for low-income individuals. In a 2015 study of 21 cities, 33 percent of lawful permanent residents eligible for naturalization qualified for fee waivers, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund (NALEO).
Without waivers, fewer individuals eligible for naturalization will be able to begin the process because of the financial burden, especially if the proposed fee increases are implemented as well.
Though fee increases for naturalization are not unprecedented in the history of USCIS, since the organization’s inception in 2003, the increases never exceeded $265 at one time.
The administration justified the changes by stating that “current fees do not recover the full costs of providing adjudication and naturalization services.” The Federal Register announcement stated that USCIS’ operating budget necessitates the fee increases to ensure that USCIS has enough resources to carry out its duties.
However, the announcement also proposed transferring billions of dollars from USCIS to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for enforcement operations.
The unprecedented proposed $530 increase and lack of a legitimate rationale for it demonstrates how the Trump administration continues to devalue the importance of naturalization. A failure to promote naturalization prevents immigrants and the nation as a whole from reaping the cultural, economic, and civic benefits of naturalization.
The Ballooning Naturalization Backlog
In 2016 and 2017, the U.S. experienced a spike in naturalization applications. Though application numbers typically fluctuate in election years or before changes in fees, the 2016 and 2017 spikes were unusually high because of fear surrounding Donald Trump’s rhetoric about immigration. The number of applications filed decreased in 2018 while the number of applications processed increased.
However, USCIS, overwhelmed by the workload, was unable to keep up with the volume of applications. A bottleneck formed for applicants at every stage of the process that resulted in a major backlog of naturalization applications because USCIS did not dedicate adequate resources to address the application spike.
The average processing time for an application doubled from 5.6 months in 2016 to 10.3 months in 2018, with some immigrants waiting up to 20 months in the most backlogged field offices.
The average wait time for applications filed in FY 2020 (October 1, 2019, to March 31, 2020) has already reached 8.3 months. Undoubtedly, the wait time will increase after accounting for the impact of the COVID-19 closures.
USCIS processing efficiency sits at a 10-year low, and the agency has been unable to catch up with the number of naturalization applications since the spike in 2016. Though USCIS has processed an increasing number of cases per year since 2017, it has barely made a dent in the year-end backlog.
At the end of FY 2019, the year end backlog reached 647,576 pending cases.
Individuals who have submitted their applications wait in limbo until they complete the naturalization interview, and eventually complete the process by taking the naturalization oath. During this limbo, applicants cannot access the formal and de facto benefits of citizenship, such as voting rights, wage increases, access to higher-skilled jobs, and opportunities for home ownership.
COVID-19 crisis response
As a response to the COVID-19 crisis, USCIS closed all offices from March 18 to June 4, 2020, which brought all nonessential immigration services to a standstill. This closure meant that naturalization oath ceremonies — as gatherings of thousands of people — were halted. These ceremonies, though pro forma in nature, constitute the final necessary step for an immigrant to become a naturalized citizen.
Immigration-advising firm Boundless found that as of March 18, when USCIS closed, 126,000 immigrants were approved and in line to take the naturalization oath. Another 649,021 naturalization applications were in the pipeline by the end of the first quarter of FY 2020, the most recent for which we have data, ensuring the backlog of people waiting to take the oath would only grow.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the president’s Office of Management and Budget urged federal agencies to “use the breadth of available technology capabilities to fulfill service gaps and deliver mission outcomes” amid the crisis. This gave USCIS the opportunity to pursue a remote option for the naturalization oath ceremony.
Additionally, USCIS has authority from Congress to conduct remote ceremonies. Remote ceremonies would prevent the backlog of naturalization cases from ballooning further and allow those immigrants who are ready to take the oath to fully engage in American civic life.
In June, a bipartisan group of House members signed a letter asking that the authority from Congress “be utilized to remotely administer or waive the Oath of Allegiance amid the COVID-19 pandemic” because it would bring certainty to thousands of immigrant families and “prevent unnecessary increases” to the naturalization backlog. A similar letter was signed by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).
Recognizing the need for remote naturalization ceremonies, Niskanen also urged USCIS to pursue a remote option and worked alongside lawmakers to raise the issue to USCIS.
However, USCIS has not taken advantage of remote oath ceremonies, nor taken any steps in that direction. On June 4, 2020, USCIS reopened its offices with restrictions and limited capacities. It started conducting small, in-person naturalization ceremonies again, but these ceremonies have not come close to pre-COVID-19 ceremony capacity.
For example, ceremonies in Orlando, Fla., are being conducted in groups of four to 10 and individuals participate in the oath from inside their vehicles.
USCIS has naturalized 2,000 individuals through the first week since the reopening on June 4, but this number pales in comparison to the pre-pandemic number of 60,000 naturalized individuals per month.
The Trump administration’s current approach to naturalization does not encourage immigrants to become citizens; rather, it stifles engagement in American civic life. By increasing fees and making applicants wait months, sometimes years, for approval, the administration penalizes immigrants who have come to the U.S. the “right way.” The Trump administration fails to acknowledge the great benefits that naturalized immigrants provide for the United States, culturally and economically.
Ultimately, the administration’s legacy on naturalization will be characterized as making the process more difficult for individuals through fee increases and ceasing naturalization ceremonies and failing to address the USCIS processing backlog.
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