PHOENIX – Alex Beric, a 44-year-old immigrant from England, applied for naturalization in May 2019. He was hoping to become a U.S. citizen in time to vote in the presidential election this November.
But now he is one of more than 300,000 immigrants at risk of not becoming citizens in time to cast ballots after the federal agency in charge of processing naturalization applications suspended in-person interviews and oath ceremonies this spring amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"It would be fairly disappointing," said Beric, who came to the U.S. in 2004 and lives in Gilbert. "My wife and I have made our life here. We have no intention to return to England, so it would be nice to take part in local and federal elections."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes immigration benefits, notified Beric in early March that his naturalization interview, which is done in-person, had been scheduled for April 21.
Shortly after, Beric said he received another notification that his naturalization interview would be rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
More than three months later, Beric, a software product manager, is still waiting for his naturalization interview to be rescheduled.
Meanwhile, time is running out. The deadline in Arizona to register to vote in the Nov. 3 general election is Oct. 8, according to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office.
A big budget shortfall only got worse with the pandemic
In March, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced all in-person naturalization interviews had been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization.
The agency also suspended naturalization oath ceremonies, the final step immigrants go through to become U.S. citizens after passing their naturalization interview, Capps said.
USCIS resumed oath ceremonies in June and is conducting in-person naturalization interviews, an agency spokesperson said.
“Since resuming in-person services on June 4, our first priority has been to conduct naturalization ceremonies for those whose ceremonies were postponed due to the temporary COVID-related closures. We have also prioritized rescheduling interviews for naturalization and adjustment of status that were postponed," Jessica Collins, the USCIS spokesperson, said.
"We’ve reopened our offices in accordance with the CDC’s guidelines. ... We are conducting naturalization interviews and are committed to conducting as many interviews as we can in manner that is safe for our staff and for the public.”
What's more, USCIS, which operates mostly on the application fees it collects from immigrants applying for naturalization and other immigration benefits, faces a huge budget shortfall. The shortfall started last year, but was worsened by the pandemic, Capps said.
As a result, more than two-thirds of the agency's staff are facing furloughs starting in August unless the agency receives a bailout from Congress. The agency is asking Congress for $1.2 billion to cover the fiscal crunch. The furloughs could further hamper efforts to plow through the huge backlogs of immigrants waiting to be naturalized, Capps said.
"Everyone who doesn't get an oath ceremony or doesn't get a completed application process by October obviously is not going to be able to vote in the next election, at least in Arizona," Capps said.
Voter registration deadlines vary by state. In most states, the deadline is in October. A handful of states allow voters to register in person on Election Day.
About 315,000 immigrants may not be able to vote in the November election because their citizenship applications won't be completed in time, according to an analysis of previous USCIS data by Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants navigate the system.
The estimate is based on the 63,000 immigrants who typically complete in-person naturalization ceremonies and oath ceremonies a month. There is typically a two-month lag between the in-person interview and going through the oath ceremony, the final step to becoming a U.S. citizen.
Although USCIS reopened in June, few, if any, in person naturalization interviews have been rescheduled, said Boundless CEO Xiao Wang.
In 2018, more than 700,000 immigrants became citizens
That leaves a backlog of five months of potential U.S. citizens who are on hold, Wang said.
"We think that over 300,000 immigrants won’t be able to become U.S. citizens in time who otherwise would have been able to become citizens in time to vote," Wang said.
About 761,000 immigrants became U.S. citizens in fiscal year 2018, according the most recent Department of Homeland Security data.
Wang said USCIS has missed out on an opportunity to modernize the process for naturalization by switching from in-person interviews and oath ceremonies to handling those functions remotely, just as many schools and companies have adjusted during the pandemic.
As a result, many immigrants will be denied the opportunity to feel like they are fully American by not being able to vote, Wang said.
Shortened ceremony, but 'my best day in the world'
On a recent Friday morning, Aden Bashir Hillowle, a 57-year-old immigrant from Somalia, strolled out of the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse in downtown Phoenix.
Minutes earlier, Hillowle, a truck driver, wearing maroon and gold mask over his face, had raised his right hand and recited a 140-word oath swearing allegiance to the United States.
And with that he had become a U.S. citizen.
The ceremony, however, had been bittersweet.
Because of COVID-19 precautions, Hillowle was not allowed to bring any guests to witness the ceremony. That meant his wife and nine children had to stay home.
The ceremony was also unusually brief. After the oath was administered, new citizens were handed their certificates, a judge said a few congratulatory remarks and they were done, he said. Each new citizen also had to stand at least 6 feet apart. There was no hugging or handshakes.
He was originally scheduled to take the oath ceremony on March 12. But then USCIS notified him that his ceremony had been suspended. He received notice on June 26 that his ceremony had been rescheduled to July 10.
Hillowle said he was headed home to meet his wife and children. He had rented a van and the family planned to celebrate with a trip to California.
"Actually, this is my best day in the world," said Hillowle, clutching his naturalization certificate in his hand.
3 new citizens plan to vote for Trump
Several new citizens interviewed outside the federal courthouse on July 10 said voting in the November election was one of the main reasons they applied for citizenship this year.
Wang said immigrants tend to vote Democratic, which may give the Trump administration less incentive to work through the backlog of immigrants waiting to complete the citizenship process. However, three of the four new citizens interviewed at the federal courthouse in Phoenix, including Hillowle, said they planned to vote for President Donald Trump. The fourth declined to say how she planned to vote.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, new citizens could register to vote at tables set up by election officials outside the courtroom. But the new citizens said there were no voter registration tables there when they left the courtroom.
"It's really good timing because I can vote now," said Saha Bektas, a 34-year-old truck driver originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Cendie Taylor, a 54-year-old immigrant from the Philippines, said she was scheduled to take the citizenship oath on March 10.
But then it was postponed because of the pandemic.
"I was a little bit worried" it would not be rescheduled in time to vote, she said.
She was relieved when she was notified a week before that her ceremony had been rescheduled for July 10.
She described the ceremony as "short, solemn and heartwarming."
And now she will get the chance to vote.
"I'm very excited," she said.
Follow reporter Daniel Gonzalez on Twitter @azdangonzalez.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Citizenship process faces big backlog due to COVID-19 pandemic