The Trump administration has justified major changes to citizenship processing to “safeguard” the U.S. immigration system from application fraud. Yet the increased vetting has not lowered the number of approvals over the last few years, indicating an absence of fraud. The time it takes to approve those applications, however, has grown.
A new report from the Migration Policy Institute found changes to the naturalization process have only added to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) crisis-level application backlog. These inefficient changes have drained USCIS of financial resources amidst its impending furloughs.
The report’s data comes from survey results from 110 naturalization service providers across the country. From March 2019 through September 2019, these nonpartisan, nonprofit providers were asked to consider changes the Trump administration had made to naturalization processing. The survey revealed trends at different stages of the naturalization process throughout 52 of the 87 USCIS field offices.
Before the Naturalization Interview
During the survey period, respondents observed that clients often did not receive proper notifications of their USCIS interview dates.
One-fourth of the service providers said clients missed interviews because USCIS sent notices to the wrong address. Others recounted that attorneys received notices on behalf of clients, but clients were never personally contacted by USCIS. Most described clients missing interviews because USCIS had sent notices too late, while some were never notified.
Attending these interviews is critical. Failing to appear can lead to a denial, a loss of the exorbitant filing fee, and a loss of one’s place in the processing line.
During the Naturalization Interview
Respondents observed several changes to interview processing.
One-in-four of those surveyed stated interviews doubled in time. In previous years, interviews lasted 20 to 30 minutes, but began to take 45 minutes up to an hour. At the Des Moines, Atlanta, and Detroit offices, interviews took over an hour and a half.
25% of those surveyed described their clients being asked questions unrelated to naturalization requirements. This led to USCIS officers subjectively denying some applicants’ citizenship. Some officers asked about past divorces, how applicants paid their green card fees—particularly if they were low-income—and information regarding applicants sending relatives money to foreign countries.
One applicant broke down when she was forced to revisit her traumatic asylum journey to an interviewing officer. She had to undergo a second interview because she did not pass the first time.
After the Naturalization Interview and During Oath Ceremonies
According to an eighth of service providers, applicants were still asked questions regarding their eligibility for citizenship after they passed their naturalization interview and were about to take their citizenship oath.
One woman withdrew her application after she was intimidated by an officer who continued to question her about alleged welfare fraud. Other respondents described instances where naturalization ceremonies were canceled because officers had second thoughts about an applicant’s ability to speak English despite having already been approved for naturalization.
Increased Requests for Evidence
USCIS issues Requests for Evidence (RFEs) to request additional or sometimes missing information in support of an applicant’s naturalization application. These requirements include such things as evidence of compliance with tax laws, physical presence in the United States marriage and child support, and criminal history. RFEs can significantly increase the time it takes the agency to adjudicate applications.
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Over one-third of service providers stated USCIS consistently issued more RFEs during the survey period. Low-income applicants were reported to have been disproportionately targeted for RFEs relating to tax compliance. Some were even forced to supply tax statements of family members.
Additional information sought after in RFEs fell outside the statutory requirement for citizenship. One respondent described at least five clients forced to prove over 20 years of continuous residence within the United States, despite the requirement being between three to five years. Other unrelated RFEs included proof of an applicant ever having traveled back to their home country. Applicants were also asked to provide documentation to prove they had paid traffic tickets from almost two decades before their interview.
USCIS Should Better Utilize its Limited Resources
Since 2016, average processing times for naturalization applications have increased to a little more than eight months, leaving would-be citizens in limbo for unnecessary lengths in time. Even though USCIS has received a large share of naturalization applications over the last few years, this added processing has been shown to waste time and money for all involved.
USCIS claims to be an agency of integrity and efficiency, but its actions undermine its own mission. Most recently, some immigrants legally in the United States have been disadvantaged by USCIS’ failure to print green cards and employment authorization documents during the coronavirus pandemic.
Becoming a U.S. citizen not only represents a person’s commitment to full integration into American society, it also provides new citizens with voting rights, full access to public resources, and legal protection from deportation. USCIS once honored its mission to provide immigrants with this life-changing service that mutually benefits new citizens and the nation. The agency should refocus its resources on cost saving and efficiency measures to help ensure that it can remain solvent while also meeting its mission.
ImmigrationImpact.com is a project of the American Immigration Council.