‘Plan’ To End Citizenship Backlog Makes Little Progress

Feb 27, 2019

Underneath President Trump’s portrait at the federal courthouse in Islip, Long Island, a line forms.

Dozens of new citizens have just taken the Oath of Allegiance and are now waiting to have their photos taken.

“I’m happy. I like this country,” Jorge Acosta, a beaming immigrant from Colombia, said as he waited.

His wife, Anna Morales, came with him to the ceremony. “He waited for months and months.”

Morales became a citizen two years ago. She says her application took five months to process, compared to her husband’s 14 months.

“It’s a new time, a new president,” she said.

Together, Morales and her husband show how becoming a U.S. citizen is taking longer and longer. Right now the wait can take 12 months on Long Island, 18 months in Connecticut, and 24 months in New York City.

The couple also shows what’s changed between the Obama and Trump administrations. Right now there are roughly 740,000 pending applications nationally. That’s double the wait list compared to five years ago.

The government says it inherited two challenges from the Obama administration. The federal agency in charge, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, blames skyrocketing applications ahead of the 2016 election. Also, an internal audit by the Department of Homeland Security says a computer system failure caused outages and inefficiencies.

“It’s just a perennial problem because it takes time to catch up to backlogs,” USCIS Director Lee Francis Cissna said at an immigration conference in October. He suggested the solution is digitizing the agency.

“Given the way the agency is self-funded through fees, it’s very hard to stay on top of and keep catching up with backlogs and incoming flow.”

USCIS says that new hires and the opening of a new field office, both of which happened under the Obama administration, show they are addressing the backlog. But the agency’s own data released Tuesday shows the backlog has barely budged. And the number of lawsuits claiming unreasonable delays and denials has reached a 10-year high.

“The agency indicates, we have hired additional officers and shifted resources toward citizenship applications,” Elise Damas, an immigration attorney with the Central American Refugee Center, said. “If that’s the case, why are we seeing the backlogs?”

Naturalization backlog started growing under Obama, but lawyers say it remains high because of extra scrutiny from the Trump administration.

Damas says under Trump, USCIS has been asking for more documentation than before. For example, requiring copies of every page of every passport ever issued. Or copies of court documents that have already been submitted to USCIS.

“It’s kind of absurd and the kind of request that will take a case that is very straightforward and drag it on indefinitely.”

USCIS declined requests for statistics on how frequently it asked applicants for additional information. Damas says the Trump administration is delaying applications on purpose for political gain.

“I really think it’s backhanded voter suppression.”

This isn’t the first time an administration has been accused of politicizing citizenship. In the late ‘90s the immigration agency under Democratic President Bill Clinton was more welcoming, according to Irene Bloemraad, who studies citizenship at the University of California at Berkeley. She says Clinton’s goal was to professionalize immigration services.

“But they also likely recognized that this could increase the number of Democratic voters. I think the Republicans only saw this as a way to increase Democratic voters,” Bloemraad said.

According to budget requests sent to Congress, USCIS plans to add more staff in the coming year. However, the agency has not yet said whether those additional hires would process citizenship applications or increase immigration enforcement.

Because of a publishing error, a premature version of this story was removed on January 11, 2019.