Citizenship backlog silences potential Illinois voters

citizenship oath ceremony

By Nona Tepper

[A national version of the story was published in the Washington Post. Read it here: Yes, the election is rigged — against immigrants who should be able to vote but can’t]

A growing citizenship backlog crisis may leave more than 17,000 Illinois residents unable to vote come November.

The number of Illinois citizens who have applied for citizenship increased 14.7 percent year over year to 9,299 so far in 2016, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department (USCIS), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in charge of naturalizations.

The number applications still waiting on a decision by USCIS, however, swelled 22.8 percent over the same time period to 17,679 applicants. The increase in pending citizenship applications over number of applications actually filed indicates that USCIS is backlogged in processing applications, a procedure that normally takes five months.

Illinois is the sixth most-backlogged state across the country. Nationally, USCIS’ backlogs have growth 31.2 percent since 2015 to more than half a million applicants waiting to hear if they can, indeed, vote.

“Across the country hundreds of thousands of people are going to be disenfranchised immigrant voters, that’s not right. That corrodes the basis of our American democratic administration and prevents people from being civically engaged,” said Tara Raghuveer, deputy director for the National Partnership of New Americans (NPNA).

Her organization is a nonpartisan coalition of social justice organizations that has held citizenship workshops across the country in preparation for the upcoming election.

USCIS’ backlog is the latest problem for an agency long plagued by delays.

The DHS Inspector General recently criticized USCIS for failing to modernize its technology processes. So, too, its mistaken approval for citizenship for more than 850 persons facing deportations has led Republicans to call for USCIS to ramp up its protective measures to ensure that only those eligible become citizens.

Overall about half a million applicants across the US may not receive their citizenship in time to vote. But the agency’s delay has a larger impact. The failure to get their citizenship papers in time means delays in employment, the ability to travel and access to other services for immigrants.

“USCIS anticipated that there would be a spike in applications this year, as we usually see in an election year, but the increase in N-400 [citizenship] applications has exceeded expectations,” a DHS official, who declined to be named, wrote in an email.

Immigrant advocates say the agency should have expected a flood of applications this year. That is because of massive organizing efforts by immigrant groups across the U.S., some supported by the federal government. Likewise the agency has faced similar backlog problems when applications swelled in previous election years.

Although the DHS official said USCIS is paying staff overtime to process applications, and shifting work to less busy locales, that’s not enough, Maria Rodriguez, board member of NPNA, said in a statement.

“If non-profit organizations scaled up leveraging volunteers and free space, aspiring citizens coughed up $680 for application fees, prepped for background checks, and English and civics tests, then USCIS can do its part to process them expeditiously,” she said. “Not doing so amounts to suppression of the immigrant vote by denying the franchise they have earned.”

NPNA scrambled to file naturalization applications before June, so documents would have the six months necessary for processing and ready in time for the November election, said Pili Tobar, advocacy and communication director at the Latino Victory Project, an organization that advocates for Latino participation in politics and partners with the NPNA.

Ironically, Tobar said many applied solely so they can vote on a presidential candidate who supports progressive immigration reform.

“Immigration reform was not brought up at all this past political cycle. Politicians were calculating that, ‘Latinos are not going to hold us accountable, and not going to vote us out of office. Therefore, we can basically take them for granted,’” she said. “We’re trying to avoid that from happening again by having a show of strength at the electoral ballot box [in November].”

Republican nominee Donald Trump’s negative comments toward immigrants and about “building a wall” to keep Mexicans out of the country, has angered the Latino community and driven many long-time legal residents to apply for naturalization, she said.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is the Latino favorite, said Francisco Heredia, national field director at Mi Familia Vota, an organization that works to get Latinos to vote and partners with the NPNA.

“[Trump’s] rhetoric around Mexicans and Latinos has affected him in terms of being able to get more Latinos on board with him, that’s what polling suggests right now,” he said. “But, we’ll see what happens at the end of the day marker on November 8.”

Photo at top: New Americans raise their hands in an oath ceremony at the Grand Canyon National park. A backlog at the United States Customs and Immigration Services has prevented many Illinois residents from achieving citizenship in a timely manner. (Michael Quinn/ FLICKR)