The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Would-be Americans are being kept from becoming citizens — and from voting in the fall

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Field Office in Tukwila, Wash., on March 6.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Field Office in Tukwila, Wash., on March 6. (Stuart Isett)
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WHY IS U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services preventing thousands of would-be citizens from taking the oath — and thus from voting in the fall?

Over the past three years, USCIS, which handles naturalizations for new Americans, green cards for legal permanent residents and other vetting for visa applicants and asylum seekers, has overseen a payroll that has swelled by nearly 20 percent, to about 19,000 workers. At the same time, the number of applications it receives has nosedived, meaning the fees on which the agency’s budget depends are so depleted that it is begging Congress for a $1.2 billion bailout.

Meanwhile, one of USCIS’s crucial functions, administering the oath of allegiance to new citizens, has come to a crashing halt. Granted, the pandemic is to blame for the suspension of public citizenship ceremonies, in which 60,000 immigrants — fully screened, interviewed and approved — raise their right hands each month. But as columnist Catherine Rampell pointed out on the opposite page last week, the agency offers no convincing explanation for why it cannot do the job online, by mail or telephonically. Federal law specifically allows immediate administrative naturalizations, in place of the usual ceremonies, when required by “exigent circumstances relating to travel or employment.” If a pandemic is not such an “exigent circumstance,” then the law has no meaning.

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Often at naturalization ceremonies, the new citizens are told that voting is their greatest privilege and responsibility. But with the ceremonies frozen and USCIS sitting on its hands, more than 140,000 would-be citizens have already been kept from registering to vote, a total that grows by 2,100 daily.

Democratic Party strategist and lawyer Marc Elias says that flaws in ballot design are often overlooked but have huge repercussions on elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

USCIS has been a key cog in the Trump administration’s anti-immigration machinery, so it’s fair to suspect the agency is less than intent on finding workarounds that would enable naturalizations to go ahead. Statutory language mandates that oaths of allegiance for new citizens proceed “frequently and at regular intervals.” The agency ignores that provision while noting that federal regulations require that the oath be taken “in person.” In that apparent conflict between law and regulation, the law should prevail, and online ceremonies would facilitate that.

The various logistical hurdles to remote or virtual naturalization — ensuring that applicants turn in their green cards before receiving their certificates of naturalization, for instance — could be resolved if officials were determined to find solutions. But USCIS is the same agency that has thrown countless impediments in the paths of other immigrants.

Those impediments, among many others, very likely contributed to the agency’s parlous financial circumstances even before the pandemic arrived. Many prospective legal permanent residents, well aware that a new rule would disqualify them if they were judged likely to need food stamps, subsidized housing or other public benefits, decided not to apply for green cards. Every lost application means lost revenue for USCIS. Little wonder it has announced its intention to hoist fees for a variety of services and applicants — including naturalization, which would soar to $1,170 from the current rate of $725.

America’s brand and greatness have derived from welcoming immigrants with open arms. By doing the opposite, the nation is diminished.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this editorial: The delays in citizenship ceremonies have been warranted

Catherine Rampell: These would-be citizens want to vote this fall. Why is the Trump administration blocking them?

Letters to the Editor: The plight of all-but-sworn-in U.S. citizens

León Krauze: Immigrants — essential, ignored, persecuted — are committed to the U.S. Where’s our gratitude?

Dany Bahar: Suspending immigration would only hurt America’s post-coronavirus recovery

Julio Ricardo Varela: As he bungles this crisis, Trump turns to a familiar scapegoat: Immigration