Despite what advocates call a “totally predictable” spike in the number of naturalization applications received by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) leading up to the election, the agency appears unable to process the pending applications, which number more than half a million as of the third quarter, before November. Without recourse, those people will not have the ability to vote this election cycle, as we are approaching the final registration days for most states.
About a dozen states have a deadline of October 11, including Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
In a statement to Rewire, USCIS said that it has experienced a “significant increase” in applications and that the agency processes them within its “processing time goals” of five to seven months. The agency also told Rewire, “It is important to recognize that current pending workload does not equate to a backlog” and that the pending workload number is “inaccurately portrayed as evidence of delays.”
The agency went on to say that applications are processed in the order they are filed and “variances in processing times are a direct result of geography and capacity.”
Responding to USCIS’ statement in a phone interview, Tara Raghuveer, deputy director of the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), told Rewire the agency’s response would be laughable if it weren’t so “hugely detrimental” to potential citizens.
“When was the last time you heard a federal agency admit responsibility and say, ‘Yes, we were unprepared and we’re trying to fix it?’ USCIS was clearly caught off guard by the number of applications, which is inexcusable given the multiple contexts surrounding the spike,” Raghuveer said.
According to Disenfranchisement Danger Zones, a report released last month by NPNA, data from USCIS for the third quarter of FY 2016 shows a 32.1 percent spike in Form N-400 naturalization applications over the same quarter of FY 2015, but the number of pending applications has grown by 31.2 percent over the same period last year.
The deputy director cited multiple reasons USCIS should have invested in infrastructure needed to handle an increase in applications. Not only was there a campaign by leading labor organizations—including NPNA, Mi Familia Vota, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite HERE, and the Latino Victory Fund—to drive a nationwide spike in naturalizations, but the Obama administration itself has aggressively promoted an outreach program to get immigrants naturalized for the purpose of voting.
By all accounts, 2016 was taking shape to be a record-breaking year for citizenship applications, especially when considering this year would also encompass the two primary reasons USCIS has historically seen spikes in naturalization applications: politics and price.
“We can always count on there being spikes in naturalization applications when there is set to be an increase in the price of the naturalization fee, and NCIS proposed a spike this past spring,” Raghuveer said. “We also know people rush to become citizens when it is time to elect a new president. We saw this in 2012 and with so much at stake in this upcoming election, we anticipated we’d see even bigger numbers this year in terms of applications. USCIS should have anticipated this as well.”
The New York Times reported in March that naturalizations “generally rise during presidential election years.” It also noted that Republican nominee Donald Trump has “provided an extra boost this year,” especially among Mexican immigrants, the largest immigrant group in the country. And while the current naturalization fee is a hefty $680—which many already require a fee waiver to afford—the proposed increase to $725 reportedly sent many immigrants scrambling to file their paperwork.
As the Pew Research Center noted, USCIS saw a similar spike in applications in 2007 before the agency increased the fee from $330 to $595.
Since the spike in applications was, as Raghuveer put it, “totally predictable,” advocates like her are frustrated by how USCIS purportedly failed to prepare for it, especially as other areas of the government were actively pushing for qualified applicants to complete the process. They are calling on USCIS to rectify the problem.
In a press release, Latino Victory Fund interim director Cesar J. Blanco said there are already many barriers in place that keep Americans from voting, and that the pileup of applications simply makes it harder for immigrants to get naturalized in time to vote. “It would be an extreme affront to our democracy and everything this country stands for should we choose to leave over half a million people voiceless this November,” Blanco said.
Of the 524,014 naturalization applications pending nationally, NPNA estimates that 117,112 potential citizens live in “disenfranchisement danger zones,” meaning they are at the highest risk of disenfranchisement this November, because they live in states that have seen more than 50 percent growth in application piles over the last year. As NPNA’s report noted, danger zones are often in battleground states.
The American Immigration Council reported in January that “the growing political and economic clout of immigrants, Latinos, and Asians” is most apparent in Nevada, with one of five Nevadans being immigrants, 47.4 percent of whom are naturalized U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote. Given that the Associated Press in August called Nevada a “presidential bellwether, voting for the winning candidate in every election since 1980,” the outstanding applications could have a real effect on Election Day results.
The state has a voter registration deadline of October 18. It’s also suffered the worst in the country. Nevada experienced a 53.8 percent spike in applications received but an 89.4 percent uptick in applications pending over the same period in 2015, according to Disenfranchisement Danger Zones.
Raghuveer asserted she does not believe the pileup of applications in battleground states are intentional, but rather “a gross case of mismanagement.”
“This is an instance in which bureaucracy and inefficiency in the system is eroding the basis of American democracy, and we think that’s deeply problematic,” she said.
Given that many states are approaching their voter registration deadlines, Raghuveer said she’s not entirely hopeful that those potential citizens who currently have applications pending will be able to vote in November. Bloomberg reports that as of October 11, “over a quarter of the 50 states will close certain forms of voter registration.”
“At this point, there isn’t a lot of time to actually account for the backlog,” she said. “My only hope is that [USCIS is] doing everything humanly possible to address [its] limited capacity and redistribute whatever resources necessary, especially to field offices in states like Nevada where it appears as if resources are severely lacking. Our call to USCIS isn’t just about them acting in time to ensure that all of those who applied for naturalization for the specific reason of voting can—though that’s important, it’s also about calling for a realignment of the agency so that it’s able to fulfill its mission to serve people.”