On a Wednesday morning in late February, Annie Johnson Benifield was already through the doors of the M.O. Campbell Education Center, in Houston by 5:30 a.m.
The occasion was a once-a-month naturalization ceremony, where anywhere between 1,700 to 2,600 legal permanent residents swear a 140-word oath in order to become U.S. citizens. The ceremony wouldn’t begin until later in the morning, but Benifield and the 40 or so volunteers from the League of Women Voters (LWV) had arrived early to set up.
The League is the official registration partner for many naturalization ceremonies across the country. And before the pandemic, these events happened frequently, taking place once, or sometimes twice, each month at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field offices as well as some federal courthouses. The League had predicted that, in 2020, it would interact with up to 200,000 new citizens and their family members in 1,000 events across the country.
The Houston chapter specifically had an 85 to 90 percent success rate in new voter registrations, for an annual average of 30,000 new voters, according to Benifield. But this year, with the widespread interest in the presidential elections, she thought registrations might crack 40,000.
“I was getting excited and feeling giddy about it,” she told FiveThirtyEight, “but COVID-19 had a different plan.”
Newly naturalized citizens are one of the fastest-growing voting groups in the United States. In February, the Pew Research Center published a report that found that 23.2 million naturalized citizens would be eligible to vote in November’s presidential elections, making up a record 10 percent of the total electorate. And according to a February analysis by the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), a coalition of immigrant advocacy organizations, 860,000 new Americans were expected to have naturalized by November before the pandemic brought things to a halt.
But not all eligible voters actually vote, and naturalized Americans have historically trailed native-born Americans at the polls.1 In 2016, for example, 54 percent of naturalized citizens voted in the general election compared with 62 percent of native-born citizens. According to studies, one explanation is an element that could be missing again this year: voter registration. It’s not a lack of desire to participate, the study finds, but rather it’s an unfamiliarity with how or where to register, registration deadlines, and language issues. Once these barriers are overcome and new Americans are registered, they tend to vote at the same rates as native-born members of their demographic group.
Take someone like Raz Ahmadi, a new U.S. citizen from Afghanistan. For the past five years, he has worked as an organizer registering voters and advocating for progressive environmental policies in Virginia. And this year, after completing the naturalization process, which had been interrupted by COVID-19, in mid-July, Ahmadi will finally be able to cast his own ballot.
Though he has already been involved in politics, Ahmadi says that being able to actually participate is a whole new feeling for him. Being “empowered to vote, mentally, it gives you a lot of power,” he says. “It just personalizes a lot of things. Now you’re more involved in the community.”
But even before COVID-19, the wait time for citizenship applications had hit new highs under the Trump administration. According to USCIS numbers, the naturalization process averaged 8.8 months in 2020, compared with 5.6 months in 2016 and a peak of 10.3 months in 2018,2 though in some cases, it could take up to three years.
COVID-19 exacerbated this delay. On March 18, USCIS temporarily shut down all public-facing activities, including interviews for visas, asylum and naturalization as well as oath ceremonies. The agency did not make plans for virtual alternatives, bringing much of U.S. immigration to a halt.
For each day that USCIS remained closed, 2,100 potential new voters would be disenfranchised, according to a frequently cited report by Boundless, an immigration-services company co-founded by an Obama administration official.
USCIS field offices reopened on June 4 and prioritized in-person oath-swearing ceremonies. Some field offices held drive-through ceremonies, while others held more frequent, but smaller, indoor or outdoor ceremonies. By the end of July, the agency says that it has cleared the backlog of 110,000 oath ceremonies delayed by its closures, as well as an additional 7,905 oath ceremonies not scheduled before the pandemic.
Still, these 7,905 new naturalizations in July represent a twelve-fold decrease than the typical 95,850 naturalizations completed each month. So even though in-person oath ceremonies are continuing, “the fact of the matter was that there was already a backlog of people waiting to be naturalized,” says Jeanette Senecal, who oversees voter-engagement programs at the League of Women Voters, “so unless USCIS is both increasing the number of people who are getting naturalized at each one and offering more ceremonies, there’s really no way they can make that up.”
From the outset of USCIS’s closure, a diverse group of bipartisan policymakers, immigration lawyers, community advocates, and third-party voter-registration organizations like the League of Women Voters have called on USCIS to follow in the footsteps of other federal government agencies in moving activities online. In June, the USCIS Ombudsman’s Office, a small, independent office in the Department of Homeland Security that appeals specific immigration cases and suggests improvements for USCIS, weighed in, calling remote oath ceremonies, held via video teleconferencing, “a legally permissible and operationally feasible solution” for the agency in the short term and a potential long-term solution to “increase efficiencies” in its annual report to Congress.
But still, the USCIS rejected a virtual option. Spokespeople told FiveThirtyEight repeatedly, both before and after the Ombudsman’s report, that “the statutory language mandated by Congress contains certain requirements that are logistically difficult for USCIS to administer naturalization oaths virtually or telephonically.”
USCIS says that they’ve taken steps to clear the backlog in oath ceremonies, but these ceremonies are not the only steps in the naturalization process that are delayed.
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, calls USCIS’s emphasis on clearing the backlog in oath ceremonies “really misleading” because it wasn’t just oath ceremonies that were paused during this time. “It was also interviews, which meant that naturalization applications weren’t being processed,” said Pierce. She added that unless USCIS was also trying to expedite processing of naturalization applications, there was “no way” the agency was going to be able to naturalize the same number of people by the election.
By the end of March, there were more than 700,000 naturalization applications waiting to be processed.
Dan Hetlage, a USCIS spokesperson, told FiveThirtyEight that the agency has also “prioritized rescheduling interviews for naturalization and adjustment of status that were postponed,” but as of early August, immigration lawyers I spoke with said that their clients had not been contacted to schedule naturalization interviews.
There are currently 315,000 naturalization applicants awaiting their interviews, which on average occur two months before an oath ceremony, according to a Boundless analysis. In two months it will be October, which is the deadline for voter registration in many states. That means an unknown but likely significant number of those 315,000 applicants will not naturalize soon enough to register by October and vote in November.
It’s not just USCIS that has changed as a result of the pandemic. A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute cataloged 63 executive actions undertaken by the Trump administration since March that have further restricted immigration.
Pierce, who co-authored the report, says that these changes represented some of the Trump administration’s “boldest actions on immigration to date” that, in some cases, they had long been pushing but had been unable to achieve. This includes a travel ban on 31 countries, the end of asylum at the southern border, and the suspension of immigration for many family- and employment-based categories as well as four temporary-worker programs.
“During an unprecedented pandemic, which includes both public health and economic crises, you would expect immigration to take a backseat,” says Pierce, “but rather, the opposite has been true.”
When USCIS offices reopened on June 4, organizations like the League of Women Voters scrambled to help with voter-registration efforts. Benifield, from LWV-Houston, recalls reaching out multiple times to the local field office. “We were prepared to go and set up in the parking lot … if they allowed us,” she said.
In the end, her persistence paid off. “The branch chief … agreed that we could actually bring cards” for officials administering the naturalization ceremony to give out. The League cannot be on-site to register applicants directly because of the continued threat the pandemic poses, but they can drop off folders containing voter-registration packets to the local field office to be distributed at the socially distant ceremonies. USCIS is legally mandated to provide, at a minimum, voter-registration forms at each naturalization ceremony.
Benifiled said she was glad they could distribute materials, but she remained unsure how effective this form of voter registration would be. “Clearly, it will not be 30,000 like … last year.”
This is affecting the League’s activities across the country. “Spring and summer are usually really busy seasons for voter registration, but especially in presidential years, we usually see massive increases… [in] naturalization ceremonies,” says Senecal, from the League’s national office.
Volunteers understand the public health prerogatives that prevent them from conducting registrations in person, especially since many are older and at higher risk for COVID-19, but many, like Benifield, are concerned about the effect on registration numbers and broader civic engagement.
“The opportunity cost is not just registration,” adds Senecal, “it’s also voter education.”
At a basic level, in-person voter registration provides necessary information in native languages, says Nancy Xiong, the communications director for Hmong Innovating Politics, a California-based nonprofit that aims to increase civic participation among Southeast Asian Americans.
Native language materials are essential, since many new citizens, especially in already marginalized communities, have challenges with English. Even when they are provided with translated voting materials, Xiong adds, these materials “may not always be helpful because county/state offices do a word-to-word translation, without much context.”
This can create the perception that these communities are uninterested in politics, leading to “big campaigns never or rarely contact[ing] the Southeast Asian community,” Xiong says, even though 92 percent of the 310,000 Hmong Americans are citizens, one of the highest rates among Asian Americans, and 45 percent are eligible to vote. And this perpetuates a cycle of disenfranchisement, at the very moment when immigrant voters might be especially incentivized to vote, if previous elections in which immigration was a hot topic are any indication. In 2008, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s suggestion that immigrants should “self-deport” and hardline views on DACA, for example, have been linked to a jump in voter registrations between 2008 to 2012.
Sundrop Carter, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), which partners with the Philadelphia USCIS field office as its official third-party registration organization for naturalization ceremonies, told me part of the problem is that: “[B]y definition new Americans have no voter history.” As a result, she said, they’re often bypassed by most get-out-the-vote efforts. “New voters … they’re just invisible.”
This is despite the fact that in many battleground states, like Pennsylvania, where Carter is based, as well as Michigan, Florida and Nevada, the number of new Americans who are eligible to vote now is larger than the margin of victory in the 2016 elections, according to the June 2020 report from the NPNA. “Newly naturalized citizens could help to sway the outcome of national elections,” says Diego Iñiguez-López, the NPNA’s policy and campaigns manager. But more importantly, he adds, “what’s at stake is the political empowerment of newly naturalized citizens … and for the democratic ideals of this country to be fully realized and exercised.”
Community organizations have always tried to fill in the gap — and this year, just as the need for their services ramp up, COVID-19 has made them more difficult to deliver.
Hmong Innovating Politics (HIP), in California, and the nonprofit Bonding Against Adversity in Houston, which works mostly with Latin American immigrants, are doing their best to adapt by moving their activities online. HIP has switched to a text-messaging platform, which uses current friends-and-family circles to encourage contacts to register to vote. Bonding Against Adversity, meanwhile, has expanded another SMS-based communications platform to provide real-time immigration application help, and plans to restart an online version of their 14-session “citizenship college” civic-education program and application workshops in August.
Meanwhile, LWV-Houston members have paid for a QR code that brings up voter-registration information, which it is sharing on signs and, for a while, in person at public libraries, community and faith-based organizations, protests and even a taco chain restaurant.
But still, many organizations are afraid that some of the most vulnerable communities, who already feel left out of the political process, will fall through the gaps. “A lot of the communities that we work with have elementary education, are not computer-savvy, and don’t speak good English,” says Mariana Sanchez, a co-founder of Bonding Against Adversity. That’s why she says in-person registration and education is essential.
But the pandemic has put these in-person services on pause, and as a result, the applicants who need the most support are unable to access it.
COVID-19 shows little evidence of slowing down. By June, hospitals in states like Texas that had avoided the early wave of infections were warning that hospital beds were close to full, and in-person voter-registration activities, which the League of Women Voters had just restarted alongside USCIS’s reopenings, were put on indefinite pause.
In the meantime, smaller oath ceremonies continue, with USCIS spokespeople emphasizing their adherence during the ceremonies to public-health guidelines, including masks and social distancing. But it is not clear if USCIS has any contingency plans in place for alternatives to in-person activities.
The potential of more stay-at-home orders at a local level is also a possibility, which would affect which activities USCIS could continue. Guam’s USCIS office, for example, was shut down for a week as the territory’s COVID-19 case count led the governor to issue orders to shelter in place. Hetlage, the USCIS representative, did not respond to a specific question on contingency plans but reiterated that virtual oath ceremonies weren’t possible.
This has many immigration advocates perplexed. “Almost every business, school district, university and government agency across the country has made adjustments to keep their organizations — and the country — moving,” says Eric Cohen, the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an advocacy group. “Why should USCIS be any different?”
The question represents an ongoing frustration: Yes, there is an unprecedented public-health crisis, but there is also a human-made immigration crisis stemming from the administration’s policies and USCIS’s decision-making during the pandemic.
“It’s hard to look at the actions the administration has taken that result in decreased immigration, and not think that there was some intent there, especially when you’re talking about an administration that is historic in its stance on legal immigration.” says Pierce, of MPI, on whether the immigration agency’s decision-making could be political. Beyond the 63 actions taken during the pandemic, Pierce’s report identified over 400 executive actions by the Trump administration taken in the past four years that have shifted the immigration system toward removing suspected undocumented immigrants, and away from processing applications for naturalization and legal immigration.
It stands in stark contrast with the second night of the Republican National Convention, when Trump naturalized five new citizens at the White House in a prerecorded video. The president welcomed them to “a family comprised of every race, color, religion and creed united by the bonds of love,” as he said in his concluding remarks. “We are one people sharing one home, saluting one great American flag.”
USCIS representatives did not respond to a request for comment on whether the five were given voter-registration forms, as required by law.
Since early summer, USCIS has warned that if it does not receive $1.2 billion in emergency funding, the agency would furlough 13,000 workers – 70 percent of its workforce — and slow or pause many immigration processes. On August 25, after months of back-and-forth, Congress and USCIS reached an agreement that would avoid the furlough.
That agreement would not, however, avoid further delays in processing, as Joseph Edlow, deputy director for policy at USCIS, told The Washington Post: “Averting this furlough comes at a severe operational cost that will increase backlogs and wait times across the board, with no guarantee we can avoid future furloughs.”
In an effort to increase its financial sustainability, USCIS will increase fees by an average of 20 percent across the board, and more than 80 percent for naturalization applications. For groups like Bonding Against Adversity and Hmong Innovating Politics, which were already under-resourced before the pandemic, these changes will only add to their immediate workload.
Sanchez says she’s already received more inquiries from people who want to apply for citizenship before application fees for naturalization increase. “The immigration laws are so difficult,” says Sanchez, that “the only way, for some of the people we serve to help their families is through citizenship…and voting.”
But USCIS is making the process more difficult. That’s why the NPNA sees naturalization delays as an issue of voting rights.
“It’s part of the larger anti-immigrant agenda that the Trump administration has pursued over the last few years,” says Iñiguez-López. “Keep immigrants feeling unwelcome, keep them afraid, keep them intimidated, and keep them away from knowing and asserting their rights, including their right to vote.”
In other words, while these would-be citizens are trying to follow the rules of the U.S. immigration system to naturalize and effect change through the established democratic processes, the system has itself become the barrier.
This story received support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Rowan Copley contributed research.
CORRECTION (September 1, 2020, 9:40 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misquoted Diego Iñiguez-López of the NPNA as saying the larger anti-immigrant issue was meant to keep immigrants “from knowing and asserting their votes, including their right to vote.” In fact, he said it’s meant to keep them “from knowing and asserting their rights, including their right to vote.”