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'A Naturalization Crisis': 10,000 Would-Be Voters In Mass. Might Miss Out In November03:49
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New U.S. citizens waving flags during a naturalization ceremony at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston in 2016. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
New U.S. citizens waving flags during a naturalization ceremony at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston in 2016. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

The federal agency in charge of naturalizing new U.S. citizens is in turmoil, with furloughs, budget shortfalls and paralyzing backlogs.

And now three months before the presidential election, all of this is affecting who will be able to vote in November, with thousands of people in Massachusetts watching their dream of casting a ballot this year slip away.

'A Naturalization Crisis'

Wait times for citizenship applications to be processed vary greatly from one region of the country to the next. In Boston, it's estimated to be between nine and 13 months, which is right around the nationwide median.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is in charge of processing things like visas, green cards, marriage petitions and citizenship applications.

Veronica Serrato, with Boston-based Project Citizenship, said the wait time in the Boston area to become a naturalized U.S. citizen has nearly doubled since 2016, which means people looking to start the naturalization process now may not complete it until next summer.

"Clients who call the office on a daily basis are calling because they want to achieve citizenship in time to vote in November 2020 and they're really disappointed when we tell them that already, it's too late," she said.

USCIS's  budget crisis and backlog were the topic of a Congressional hearing last week before the House subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship.

In his testimony, Doug Rand, an expert on the immigration system and a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said, "USCIS has created a naturalization crisis."

By Rand's analysis, more than 10,000 people in Massachusetts and 300,000 people nationwide who would normally be eligible could miss out on voting this year because of the backlog of naturalization interviews.

"These aspiring Americans are young and old, Republicans and Democrats living all across the country," Rand said.

USCIS said in a statement that while naturalization interviews have resumed after being postponed at the onset of the pandemic, the agency didn't have data readily available on how many interviews have taken place since field offices re-opened in June.

Balancing Security And Opportunity

The administration cites the shutdown caused by the pandemic and more intensive vetting processes to root out fraud as reasons for the increased wait times.

But Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, has a different theory.

Dalal-Dheini also testified before Congress, arguing new vetting practices and long wait times are a strategic move on behalf of the Trump administration — an effort to dismantle the legal immigration process.

"If you look at the policies that have been enacted, they deliberately decrease USCIS efficiency, drive up the cost of adjudication, slow down case processing and discourage individuals from applying," Dalal-Dheini said. "And although the claims are that it's for fraud protection and to weed out frivolous applications, there hasn't been evidence to that."

The pandemic shut down most of USCIS operations — including naturalization ceremonies — for nearly three months.

Since then, the agency has resumed smaller, socially-distanced ceremonies, and an estimated 110,000 new citizens nationwide have taken the citizenship oath in time to vote.

But, last month nearly 70% of the USCIS workforce received furlough notices because of a cash crunch that the agency attributes to the pandemic. USCIS leadership is asking Congress for an additional $1.2 billion in funding.

In his own testimony before Congress last week, a union representative for USCIS employees pointed to more than the pandemic when asked about the reason for the budget shortfall and potential for furloughs.

"The pandemic is certainly a perfect storm scenario but yes, I think the budget crisis is largely a result of the administration's policies on immigration," said Michael Knowles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

A Grinding Halt

Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said a furlough of this magnitude will undoubtedly mean even fewer voters in November.

"Because with the furlough will go not only adjudication of citizenship applications but also oath ceremonies," Pierce said. "The furlough will hamper USCIS's ability to hold those oath ceremonies."

And Pierce said it's not just naturalization that would take a hit — the entire legal immigration system would come to a grinding halt.

The agency says without the funding, the furloughs will go into effect at the end of the month.

This segment aired on August 6, 2020.

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Shannon Dooling is an immigration reporter at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.

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