As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices have closed through at least June 4, 2020, bringing all nonessential immigration services to a standstill. These closures mean that all naturalization oath ceremonies — which constitute the last step in a long process for immigrants to become citizens — are on hold.
USCIS has authority from Congress to conduct remote ceremonies, and should pursue the option as the country faces the worsening pandemic. Remote ceremonies would prevent a ballooning backlog of naturalization cases and allow immigrants who are ready to take the oath to participate fully in U.S. economic and civic life as Americans.
Right now, USCIS is only providing “emergency services for limited situations” and has — rightfully so — committed to performing tasks that do not involve in-person contact with the public. USCIS, listening to crucial CDC guidance on the risks of COVID-19 spread, made a prudent decision in suspending most services.
But citizenship interviews and naturalization oath ceremonies are among the responsibilities that could easily be discharged remotely until social distancing requirements are lifted. Current law allows individuals to participate in “expedited judicial oath administration” ceremonies if they demonstrate “sufficient cause” to miss the in-person ceremony. The statute lists qualifying circumstances as severe illness, permanent disability preventing an applicant from appearing in person, advanced age, and work or travel emergencies.
In fact, the statute regarding expedited judicial oath administration ceremonies also provides precedent for remote ceremonies. The law allows for “immediate administrative naturalization,” exempting the individual from participating in the oath. The question remains whether the COVID-19 crisis stands as “sufficient cause” for immigrants scheduled for in-person ceremonies to participate in an alternative option.
Online, or remote, naturalization ceremonies would require minimal adaptations for USCIS. To ensure that the ceremonies remain public, they could be held via video conferencing software or livestream. USCIS would simply need to establish the technical capabilities to host these gatherings and ensure that those participating in the oath ceremonies have adequate notice and access to the necessary technological resources.
After all, the president’s Office of Management and Budget has urged federal agencies to “use the breadth of available technology capabilities to fulfill service gaps and deliver mission outcomes” in light of the COVID-19 crisis. If needed, Congress could provide funding in the next relief package.
Failing to continue these ceremonies will contribute to the growing USCIS backlog in naturalization applications. After passing the naturalization interview with a USCIS official, it takes an average of 60 days to take the naturalization oath. In 2016 and 2017, the U.S. saw a spike in naturalization applications.
The average processing time doubled from 5.6 months in 2016 to 10 months in some field offices, with some immigrants waiting up to 20 months in the most backlogged field offices. The number of naturalization applications leveled out in 2018, but USCIS processing efficiency still sits at a 10-year low.
Furthermore, delayed naturalization will reduce the number of new citizens who will be able to access the voting booth — or absentee ballot envelope — come November. Though USCIS does not consider naturalizing citizens an essential service at this time, with a presidential election on the horizon this is a crucial year for naturalizing citizens.
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.
For there to be a chance that each of these 126,000 people is naturalized in time to make voter-registration deadlines, Boundless estimates that ceremonies would have to restart by mid-August. Preventing these individuals, who have otherwise met all the requirements, from participating in the election could hinder future civic engagement and damage our democracy.
As discussions on Capitol Hill continue in regards to Phase IV stimulus legislation, lawmakers should include strong language instructing USCIS to develop virtual oath-ceremony capacity. Private discussions between Niskanen and Hill staff in both chambers indicate an appetite to include such measures in a new legislative package that addresses COVID-19.
Widespread, bipartisan support for naturalization has always existed. In May 2019, Niskanen supported a group of bipartisan senators requesting information about the naturalization backlog and how USCIS planned to ease the slowdown.
A few months earlier, Texas Republican and Democratic representatives wrote a joint letter to USCIS pointing out the increasing naturalization backlog and requesting information on the agency’s operations and plans to improve wait times.
Finally, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, recently naturalized immigrants see their wages rise more quickly than those who remain unnaturalized, for a total wage bump of 5.6 percent, partly because naturalization “increases immigrants’ representation in white-collar jobs.” Rather than working in construction or agriculture, these immigrants are more likely to work in finance, public administration, or the health sector.
USCIS should work to provide a remote option for the many thousands of immigrants who have worked tirelessly to complete the naturalization process. The authority and the technology exist to make this happen.
Remote naturalizations will give those who have waited patiently their new American citizenship without delay, prevent unnecessary backlogs from clogging the system, allow more new Americans to participate in the fall elections, and potentially even bring communities together to celebrate their newest neighbors.
Note: Photo provided by the George W. Bush Presidential Center.