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Skyrocketing citizenship backlog — politics at play?

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In 1952, at the height of McCarthyism, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld legislation that rendered deportable former members of the Communist Party. The plaintiffs at the center of the case, Peter Harisiades, Luigi Mascitti and Dora Coleman, had lived as lawful permanent residents in the United States for over 30 years, and they challenged on due process and other grounds the notion that they could be kicked out of the United States on their political allegiance alone.

In Justice Robert Jackson’s opinion, he noted more than once that the plaintiffs “could have” applied for citizenship during their time in the United States. In short, he chided them — they shouldn’t be complaining now, when they “could have” become citizens earlier. Ironic, because Peter’s two previous applications for citizenship were denied on political grounds.

Today, more than 700,000 applicants for U.S. citizenship are waiting for their long-delayed applications to be approved. As outlined in a recent lawsuit brought by a coalition of immigrants’ rights advocates, there is a backlog of over 753,000 citizenship applications, a 93 percent increase from 2015. Advocates contend that U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has caused this enormous backlog through a combination of extreme vetting, increased denials of applications and excessive, and unnecessary, delay tactics.

In their lawsuit, advocates assert that this backlog is politically motivated — part of a larger attempt by the Trump administration to deny civic participation to immigrants in the United States, where their rights, and presence, increasingly are under threat. After all, these longtime lawful permanent residents have deep connections to the United States — they have families, jobs, and spiritual and civic community ties; they have all paid more than $700 in application fees alone. And yet, they wait. What once was an average processing time of six to seven months now has become, on average, a more than 20-month odyssey.

What is the impact of thousands of lawful permanent residents denied the opportunity to become citizens of the United States? For one, a loss of the right to vote. Naturalized U.S. citizens are nearly 9 percent of those citizens eligible to vote. In 2016, the number of naturalized U.S. citizen voters reached 10.8 million. While turnout on election day among naturalized U.S. citizens trailed turnout for the U.S.-born population, this trend was reversed for Hispanic and Asian naturalized U.S. citizens — naturalized citizens of both groups turned out to vote in larger numbers than their U.S.-born counterparts.

More importantly for this administration, however, if advocates are right, is not whether naturalized citizens vote, but for whom. A case study of naturalized citizen voters in Florida — historically a battleground state — is instructive. Naturalized Florida citizens are 60 percent more likely to be registered as Democrats than as Republicans. Indeed, nearly 43 percent of foreign-born registered voters in Florida are Democrats, while just over 26 percent are registered as Republicans.

Nationwide, by 2020, minorities will outnumber whites for youths under age 18; by 2045, the United States is projected to become “minority-white.”

What’s more, U.S. citizenship is the only bulwark against deportation. Even lawful permanent residents, with decades of residence in the United States, can be removed for minor, nonviolent crimes. Between April 1997 and August 2007, the United States deported 87,884 lawful permanent residents — 68 percent of whom were removed following a conviction for a nonviolent offense, and leaving behind more than 100,000 children. In this particular political moment, where a dramatic increase in immigration enforcement has created fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities across the country, becoming — or at least attempting to become — a U.S. citizen seems like the most rational of choices.

The lawsuit filed last week was in response to USCIS’s failure to provide documents sought through an August Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. When USCIS declined to share a number of documents and data related to naturalization applications, advocates filed suit. As the litigation unfolds in the weeks and months to come, we may learn more about the internal motivations, or external pressures, related to this skyrocketing delay in adjudication. But as the case winds its way through the court system, it’s hard to imagine that politics — just like in 1952 — aren’t in play.

Sarah Sherman-Stokes is associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law.

Tags Citizenship of the United States Immigration to the United States Naturalization Permanent residency

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