The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Number of people who became U.S. citizens reached five-year high in fiscal 2018

L. Francis Cissna has been ousted as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director.
L. Francis Cissna has been ousted as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The number of people who became U.S. citizens reached a five-year high in fiscal 2018, according to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report that shows the U.S. government has maintained the same rate of approving citizenship applications even as the Trump administration has pledged to tighten legal immigration protocols.

USCIS naturalized 756,800 people in fiscal 2018, a 16 percent increase from 2014, with approval rates for applications processed declining slightly — to just below 90 percent. A foreign national has to be a legal permanent resident of the United States for at least five years before applying for citizenship.

Immigrant hopefuls and their attorneys have criticized the agency for increasingly longer application wait times since President Trump took office. Jessica Collins, a USCIS spokeswoman, said that “waits are often due to higher application rates rather than slow processing.”

USCIS said that it processed more naturalization applications in 2018 than in any of the past five fiscal years — nearly 850,000, an 18 percent increase from 2014. According to government statistics, the agency has received more than 2 million naturalization applications in the past two fiscal years, through the end of 2018. More than 730,000 applications are pending.

“The report shows that USCIS is doing an incredible amount of work to administer our nation’s lawful immigration system,” Collins said. “We will continue to efficiently and effectively adjudicate all immigration petitions, applications and requests and we will continue to take action to address the backlog.”

Reshaping the country’s legal immigration system has been part of Trump’s approach to the broader immigration issue. While he has been vocal in his calls for a border wall to stop illegal migrants from entering the country, he also is seeking congressional support for a proposal to cut back on immigrant visas for relatives of U.S. citizens and replace them with “merit-based” visas obtained through a points system.

Trump ousted USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna two weeks after the administration laid out the parameters of its new immigration proposal to Republican lawmakers. The release of the report Friday coincided with Cissna’s last day in office.

Cissna is the latest casualty of Trump’s recent purge at the Department of Homeland Security. Several high-ranking officials, including DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secret Service Director Randolph D. “Tex” Alles, have been ousted.

Trump plans to replace Cissna, a career bureaucrat, with conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli II, whose views of immigration more closely align with those of Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller, the lead architect of the administration’s immigration policies.

In keeping with, and even exceeding, previous years’ totals for new citizens and green cards issued by USCIS, the report’s key statistics appear to suggest efforts to limit legal immigration have not taken root.

The report does not account for the number of applications received and the total number of applications in the backlog. Applications have shot up under the Trump administration, and the backlog of pending applications for both citizenship and permanent residency grew by a million people during fiscal 2017, according to government statistics published separately from the USCIS report. The backlog has remained unchanged since then.

“They’re treading water,” said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney and the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation under the Obama administration.

And they shouldn’t be, Fresco said. Immigration applications draw fees, which cover the cost of application adjudication. The million people recently added to the backlog means USCIS would have collected at least $400 million more in fees, Fresco said.

“What these stats don’t tell you is that with a significantly higher number of user fees, they are actually adjudicating a similar or minimally higher number of applications,” he said. “So that money is not being used properly. If you have many, many more applicants paying many, many more dollars, you shouldn’t actually have the same numbers.”