Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Citizenship Delayed, Voting Denied

Delaying Citizenship, Denying the Vote

By Ming Hsu Chen[1]

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people apply for citizenship in the United States, which unlocks a sundry of rights, benefits, and belonging. As we celebrate Citizenship Day 2019, we need to acknowledge the delays in processing that keep people from becoming citizens.

The pursuit of citizenship is premised on a right to naturalize created by the Constitution and codified by federal law.  The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is the agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that processes naturalization applications.  Processing times that exceed the six-months compromise the pursuit of citizenship and accompanying rights; it violates laws governing the way the process, too. Yet a recent study of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s naturalization backlog found the backlog in naturalization applications in the Denver Field Office is 9,325 and wait times range from 10 to 19.5 months. The national backlog is 738,148 and the national wait times range from 10 months to nearly three years.

The substantial delay to naturalization created by the backlog negatively impacts voting rights, among other civil rights. The effect on voting rights is straightforward; the right to vote depends on completing the naturalization process. As of September 2019, those who join the application queue will not be processed in time to fully participate in the 2020 elections in many parts of the country. Keeping otherwise eligible voters from participation from choosing their president and voting on high stakes policies – including a broiling dispute over whether immigrants will be counted for purposes of political representation – is problematic.

Yet naturalization is about more than elections. It is about civic engagement. Impediments to voting and civic engagement are a key concern of the US Commission on Civil Rights, for which I serve on a state advisory committee, and it should be a key concern to all Americans. Even if newly-naturalized voters do not flip elections -- studies show in some places they could -- the right to vote is a fundamental right of individuals.

The USCIS says that interest in naturalizing is high, and they are processing applications as quickly as they can. To do so more quickly would compromise accuracy, they say. I don’t doubt they are working hard under considerable constraints. But in Denver the backlog persists despite the number of applications received returning to pre-election levels and despite funding increases that have allowed for new hiring. Estimating the resources needed to satisfy demand and the time needed to process an application is complex. Yet USCIS downplays the impact of exclusionary policies that lead to more intensive vetting for what used to be routine applications and the impact of resources being diverted from benefits to fraud detection and other enforcement operations. This vetting bleeds over to delays in other categories of immigration benefits as well.

On Citizenship Day, I want draw attention on the naturalization backlog. I hope the USCIS and community leaders will make it a priority for the sake of would-be citizens and for democracy.

Ming H. Chen is Professor of Law and Political Science and University of Colorado Boulder and the author of a forthcoming book, Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era (Stanford Press 2020). She served as Project Director for a Colorado State Advisory Committee report on the backlog, “Citizenship Delayed: Civil Rights and Voting Rights Implications of the Citizenship and Backlog” (September 2019). The views in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of the Colorado Advisory Committee or the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


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