But the 26-year-old hasn’t heard back about the next step in her naturalization process, even though she is in the final stages. With the early October voter registration deadline in Florida quickly approaching, she is no longer confident about her prospect of voting for the first time this year.
A backlog in naturalization applications at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is threatening to prevent an unknown number of immigrants like Muñoz from casting their first ballots this year. The delays have worsened amid budget shortfalls and policy changes by the Trump administration, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily shuttered USCIS offices this year.
“I was really eager to cast my very first ballot this important electoral year, where there’s so much happening from local to national,” said Muñoz, who works at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, an immigrant advocacy group. “After you call this your country for so many years, you’re still not a part of its democracy. I speak for many people when I say that feels really hurtful.”
USCIS has not disclosed the exact number of backlogged cases, but it says hundreds of thousands of citizenship applications are pending — many of them caught in a bureaucratic limbo with the presidential election less than three months away.
Agency spokesman Dan Hetlage said in a statement that the agency is on pace to naturalize 600,000 new citizens by the end of the current fiscal year, which runs through September. That figure is lower than in recent years because of the pandemic, Hetlage said, though his agency has acknowledged that underfunding and new regulations have contributed to delays.
In 2019, 834,000 new citizens were naturalized — the highest number in 11 years, Hetlage said, adding that all of those new Americans will be eligible to register to vote this November.
Naturalization applications surged after President Trump’s election in 2016, but some applicants are now waiting two or more years for a process the agency aims to complete within five months. USCIS records show the average time for processing citizenship applications in fiscal year 2020 was nearly nine months.
For many immigrants who decide to pursue citizenship, naturalization is the culmination of a years-long process and often a deeply personal journey. And for some stuck in the backlog, they are disappointed to watch their vote likely slip away.
“I decided to become a citizen for my voice to count and for the Latinos and all the minorities to be counted, and to be one more in this country,” said Rutilia Ornelas, 65, who applied for naturalization 20 years after becoming a permanent resident in hopes of voting for the Democratic nominee this November.
“I feel very disappointed because I was so looking forward to becoming a citizen for this election for November. I feel like my voice is not going to count,” said Ornelas, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Wisconsin.
As of March 31, the last date for which data is publicly available, more than 700,000 citizenship applications were still pending, according to agency data. USCIS has completed 156,849 naturalizations since mid-March, but additional would-be citizens have applied during that period as well.
“The backlog right now under the Trump administration is extraordinary,” said Sarah Pierce, policy analyst for the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute.
The delays came into focus last week, when five immigrants recited the Oath of Allegiance to be sworn in as U.S. citizens by acting homeland security chief Chad Wolf, as President Trump looked on.
Millions of viewers watched the ceremony, which was aired as a part of the Republican National Convention’s official programming, raising concerns that the president and Wolf were leveraging the moment for political gain. At least one of those who took part in the ceremony did not know beforehand that her oath would be part of the RNC, the woman told The Washington Post.
“Today, America rejoices as we welcome five absolutely incredible new members into our great American family,” Trump said in his remarks. “You’re now fellow citizens of the greatest nation on the face of God’s earth. Congratulations. Great going.”
For some who have been hoping to reach that celebratory moment this year, watching the ceremony aired during the RNC was bittersweet at best, and infuriating at worst.
Umaima Abbasi, a 23-year-old Pakistani immigrant, said her father in Pakistan called her after watching the ceremony: “Why can’t you also be on national TV at the RNC getting naturalized?”
Abbasi said she was elated for the five who were naturalized, knowing the cumbersome and costly process required to get there. She began the process earlier this year in hopes of voting: “When I was applying for my naturalization process, the idea of voting in November for the general election was completely — I was star-struck by the idea in and of itself.”
But her application status on the website went from “in progress” to “paused” without explanation. As she watched the televised RNC ceremony, she felt frustrated for herself and others waiting to hear back about their status.
“I was like, ‘These people really deserve it. They are thriving. Hopefully, life is so much greater for them moving forward,’” she said. “But I was also thinking . . . ‘How many other people are in my situation?’ Probably plenty, too many to even think of. . . . It was really heartbreaking for me to think about that.”
Naturalized citizens are a growing proportion of the electorate, numbering 23.2 million, or 1 in 10 Americans eligible to vote this fall — a record, according to the Pew Research Center. Newly naturalized citizens in 10 battleground states exceed the margin of victory from Trump’s 2016 election in those states, according to research from the National Partnership for New Americans, a network of immigrant and refugee rights organizations.
“Despite the backlog and attempts by this administration to minimalize the number of people who want to become citizens, we’ve seen a record number of immigrants that have naturalized,” said Nancy Flores, the network’s deputy director.
USCIS, whose funding is driven by fees from immigration applications, has not hired enough staff to cope with the surge in citizenship applications after 2016, according to a June 30 report by the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman.
It now takes longer to process each application, in part due to a 2017 executive order that requires more immigration applicants to be interviewed in person. With fewer cases being completed, there is less revenue being generated for the agency, the ombudsman found.
USCIS leadership has requested an emergency $1.2 billion bailout from Congress, which they said is necessary to prevent mass furloughs and greater backlogs in processing applications.
Those who have waited months to take the next step in the naturalization process said they feel a growing sense of anxiety and helplessness, and are now coping with the possibility they will not be sworn in in time to meet the mid-October voter registration deadline in many states.
For some, coming to terms with this impending reality means letting go of their hopes for meaningful milestones around their first vote.
When Perry So, a 38-year-old symphonic conductor from Hong Kong, applied for citizenship, the projected completion date was around the time of the due date of his daughter this summer. He had hoped to become naturalized around the time of her birth — a meaningful milestone for him and his family, he said.
“It was the arrival of our daughter where I felt like it was so important to be able to participate in the political process and to advocate and fight for the issues that affected her the most,” So said.
Now, when he checks the status of his application, the website no longer provides an estimated wait time. Instead, it reads: “We are taking longer than expected to process your case. You do not need to do anything at this time.” So said he remains hopeful: “I wanted to be naturalized because I have faith, and I continue to have faith, that there is a role for someone like me in this country. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I want to do this.”
And for others, these complications in the mechanisms of democracy have only strengthened their resolve to be civically engaged.
Syihan Muhammad, a 24-year-old software engineer in Maryland, applied for his citizenship earlier this year but knew there was a chance it may not work out in time for November.
Muhammad arrived in the United States from Indonesia when he was just a year old. When he turned 18 and couldn’t vote with his friends for the first time, he decided to participate in democracy by volunteering for political campaigns.
“All of this is because I have envied the right to vote and I wanted to be a part of the electoral process,” Muhammad said. “I had always hoped that 2020 would be my year” to vote.
But with his application stalled, Muhammad said he is finding other ways to make his voice heard. Inspired by the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the push to fight systemic racism, he has marched alongside protesters with a homemade sign carrying quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. and donated to racial justice groups. He said he has begun to see grass-roots activism as a powerful way to speak out — perhaps even more powerful than electing any one politician into office.
“I don’t know how much an administration can significantly improve things without the real grass-roots activism,” Muhammad said.
“Before, I would have viewed democracy as purely being able to vote,” he said. “But now, I view democracy as a government where people can have a say, and I think protesting [and other forms of activism] . . . force conversation to move forward and force change in the long run.”