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With Oath Ceremonies Backlogged, U.S. Citizenship Benefits Are Out Of Reach For Thousands Of Mass. Residents

Brand-new U.S. citizens wave flags during a rendition of “America the Beautiful” at the Hynes Convention Center in 2016. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
Brand-new U.S. citizens wave flags during a rendition of “America the Beautiful” at the Hynes Convention Center in 2016. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

Advocates are calling on the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts to address the growing backlog of citizenship ceremonies created as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The naturalization ceremonies, which include the citizenship oath, have been on hold since March.

The citizenship oath is more than a symbolic gesture. It's the final legal step in the long process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. These ceremonies, often conducted for hundreds of people at a time, have been stalled in light of the coronavirus — and the ever-evolving public health guidelines on social distancing.

Sameer Ahmed, an attorney and clinical instructor with Harvard's Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, estimates nearly 7,000 Massachusetts residents — and more than 100,000 people nationwide — are still waiting to take the citizenship oath. That wait is preventing people from accessing a host of benefits they're entitled to, along with the right to vote in local, state and federal elections.

Ahmed said now, during a pandemic that's wreaking havoc on the global economy, eligibility for financial benefits is crucial.

"Many are unable to apply for supplemental security income, unemployment benefits, they can't vote in elections," he said. "And many just want the sense of security and belonging of what it means to be an American."

In a letter addressed Wednesday to Chief Justice Dennis Saylor, advocates asked the court to explore conducting remote citizenship oaths via online platforms like Zoom, or holding outdoor ceremonies in order to resume the naturalization process while upholding social distancing guidelines.

A third option, advocates say, is working with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to forgo the oath requirement and issue naturalization certificates granting the rights of a U.S. citizen.

In an email, Rob Farrell, a clerk for the U.S. District Court, said ceremonies have been postponed through June.

"We are working to reformulate our ceremonies to more frequent events with fewer participants beginning in July," Farrell said. "We have also provided USCIS with the authority to conduct administrative ceremonies. We believe that both the Court and USCIS holding many more smaller ceremonies will alleviate the backlog of those awaiting citizenship."

According to the USCIS website, field offices will send notices to reschedule postponed naturalization ceremonies. Instead of the large-scale ceremonies, formerly held around Boston at places like Faneuil Hall and the JFK Museum, the agency says in-office ceremonies will be smaller.

"Under the shortened format, all legally required portions of the ceremony will take place. Attendance is limited to the candidates who are scheduled to be naturalized, a parent or trusted adult if the candidate is a minor and individuals providing disability assistance to a candidate," the site reads.

The USCIS Boston field office tells WBUR multiple small ceremonies a day, of no more than eight people, will resume locally on Monday, June 8. Similar ceremonies are slated to begin in the Lawrence field office on Thursday, June 4.

Ahmed said the goal remains to have the federal court intervene.

"Our main concern about USCIS holding small ceremonies is that because of COVID-19 and to ensure the health and safety of all, they'll likely be able to naturalize only a handful of people each day," Ahmed said. "Previously, the federal court could naturalize hundreds of people in a day."

Given that thousands of people remain disenfranchised as they wait to become naturalized citizens, he said, there should be a more aggressive approach to address the backlog while still respecting social distancing guidelines.

This article was originally published on June 03, 2020.

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Shannon Dooling is an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.

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