Approximately three quarters of a million people who were eligible for U.S. citizenship long, long before this election—who had, per the eligibility requirements, held a U.S. green card for at least five years (in most cases), lived in the U.S. continuously with that green card, and studied up on their English and civics—are still waiting to become citizens.
The bureaucratic backlog for naturalization is at historic, some say shocking levels, according to a report from the National Partnership for New Americans.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) claims it’s not fair to call all pending cases a “backlog.” Yet you have only to look at the agency’s own statistics to see that an application that took, on average, between five and six months to process between 2014 and 2016 is now taking over ten months to receive approval. (Go to the Historical National Average Processing Time for All USCIS Offices page of the USCIS website and scroll down to the line for N-400.)
And that “average” obscures the fact that, in some parts of the United States, the wait for a USCIS interview and then decision is absurdly long. Immigrants can expect, for example (according to USCIS) an up to 15.5 months’ wait in Boston, up to 16 months in Washington, DC, up to 17.5 months in Honolulu, and up to 19.5 months in El Paso.
Of course, a backlog in processing often reflects current demand. It’s true that more people are applying for naturalized U.S. citizenship than ever before. But the number of N-400 applications for citizenship filed annually has gone up only from around 700,000 to 900,000 since 2014; it hasn’t doubled.
Yet the wait time has doubled. And one hears little to nothing from the current Administration about plans to address the matter.
When a new citizen is sworn in, plenty of lofty words are issued at the oath ceremony. For example, Washington State Governor Gary Locke once told the group, “America needs you. America needs your active citizenship, your fresh perspectives on our toughest problems, and your cultural contribution.”
Federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker, in the Southern District of Indiana, said in 2016 that “your responsibilities as new citizens have become more important than ever. You will now be called upon to do your parts to help build and maintain our country’s best values and highest principles and historic traditions.”
President Obama, presiding over a 2015 oath ceremony, quoted John F. Kennedy as telling a long-ago group of new citizens that, “No form of government requires more of its citizens than does the American democracy.” Obama added that new citizens “set a good example for all of us, because you know how precious this thing is. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s something to cherish and to fight for.”
There’s no reason the next round of speeches should change. Yet one wonders whether the immigrants who finally make it through the system will notice the irony. Before they could fulfill their important, active role in U.S. society or fight for democracy, they were expected to wait passively, as the months and years went by, for the simple, legal right to participate in it.