On Monday, Nola.com ran an immigration story that cut two ways. The photo of a naturalization ceremony in Oxford, Mississippi from earlier this year shows how seriously applicants for citizenship take becoming an American citizen. The pride is clear on their faces, and they are a reminder that in the middle of what seems like bad news daily, immigrants can successfully become citizens.
On the other hand, the story documents the delay that many will face to get to the swearing-in ceremony. According to a study by the National Partnership for New Americans, the backlog in naturalization applications from immigrants who entered the country through legal means is growing. Almost 730,000 naturalization applications were pending at the end of 2017, an increase of 87 percent in just two years.
The story changes from state to state. In New Orleans, an application for naturalization could take between 12.5 and 18.5 months to be processed, and its backlog has grown by more than 24 percent. California (137,538), Texas (97,788), New York (94,491), and Florida (87,722) have the largest backlogs, and Alabama’s backlog has grown by 213 percent. The state’s denial rate has grown by 310 percent.
Michael Bars, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), challenges the characterization of the applications awaiting processing as a backlog, writing, “The current pending workload does not equate to a backlog—it's a statistic used in the USCIS report to include every application for naturalization filed including those filed in recent days and weeks—and is being inaccurately portrayed as evidence of delays,” he added.
While the wait time for naturalization processing grows, USCIS started a program with the goal of denaturalizing some American citizens and stripping them of their citizenship. The Justice Department has only filed approximately 300 denaturalization cases since 1970, but in June USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna announced that his agency is staffing up to pursue fraudulent claims that led to citizenship.
“We finally have a process in place to get to the bottom of all these bad cases and start denaturalizing people who should not have been naturalized in the first place,” he said. “What we’re looking at, when you boil it all down, is potentially a few thousand cases.”
The growing list shouldn’t discourage anyone from applying for citizenship, but it does mean that those seeking citizenship should consult an experienced attorney who can give them informed answers about what they can expect from the process, and who can help them avoid the problems that could result in delays.