SALT LAKE CITY (AP/ABC 4 News) – More than 700,000 immigrants are waiting on applications to become U.S. citizens, a process that once typically took about six months but has stretched to more than two years in some places under the administration of President Donald Trump.
The number of immigrants aspiring to become U.S. citizens surged during 2016, jumping 27 percent from a year earlier as Trump made cracking down on immigration a central theme of his presidential campaign. At first, the federal government kept up with the applications, but then the wait grew.
Backlogs are nothing new in the U.S. immigration system. It often takes years to receive asylum or to be deported. But naturalization – the final step to become an American citizen, obtain a U.S. passport and receive voting rights – had not been subject to such delays in recent years.
Now the average wait time for officials to decide on applications is more than 10 months. It takes up to 22 months in Atlanta and as long as 26 months in parts of Texas, according to official estimates.
Lyssa De La O, who sworn in as a U.S. citizen in September said some immigrants don’t have time to wait longer than anticipated.
“I would say the most frustrating thing is not knowing what’s going to happen,” said De La O. “I remember thinking, ‘If my visa or my green card expires during this period of time, until I get my citizenship, what’s going to happen to me?'”
Kuo-Wei Lee is currently facing that dilemma. She applied for citizenship at the beginning of the year, but said waiting another two years to have her application processed might not be possible.
“It’s frustrating because I have so many things going on here and to extend my application for another two years, that might mean I will have to put my life on pause,” said Lee. “If my visa expires before then, I might have to go back to Taiwan.”
De La O, who lives in Herriman, said it took her 17 years to finally be a U.S. citizen because of many roadblocks along the way.
“Laws change all the time and one of the most frustrating things was during high school, I was sure that I would get in-state tuition when I went to college. But they changed the law just overnight, saying that you would have had to live in Utah a longer period of time,” said De La O. “My green card was also stolen and it took 15 tries of calling immigration services just to get a human being on the other line.”
De La O said she’s glad she no longer has to worry about deportation, but after hearing about citizenship application delays, she encourages others who are waiting to not give up.
“Even if you don’t have hope, just keep going and do the right thing no matter what. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you. It took me 17 years. But for some people, it took 3 years. Others have waited up to 50 years,” said De La O.
The long wait times have prompted some immigrant advocates to ask whether the delays are aimed at keeping anti-Trump voters from casting ballots in elections.
Immigrant advocates recently filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles demanding records from the Trump administration on the delays. They questioned whether wait times were longer in electoral battleground states and said that could suggest voter suppression.
“I honestly wouldn’t put it past any politicians of any branch to toy with people’s citizenship,” said De La O. “I have to admit that before the 2016 elections, it was fairly easy compared to now to get ahold of immigration services.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the longer waits to naturalize are because of the surge in applications, not slower processing. The agency decided 850,000 cases in 2017, up 8 percent from a year before.
In a statement to ABC 4 News, officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said:
“USCIS has been dealt a pending naturalization caseload which more than doubled under Obama administration, and paired with the unprecedented application surge (average 25 percent application increase over the past 2 years), this has caused wait times to rise in certain areas of the country under various circumstances which can cause delays. The story regarding wait times lacks accuracy without this context:1. The pending caseload more than doubled prior to Trump taking over.2. Unprecedented application surge.3. USCIS reforms to increase processing and capacity.”
Debbie Cannon with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said that applicants can complete the process online, instead of calling the customer contact center.
“Some critical information we’re trying to get to the public in general, not just those applying for immigration benefits, is online filing. You can file to become a U.S. citizen online, apply for a green card online or replace your green card online, and track your application through the process by establishing a myUSCIS account,” said Cannon. “We’ve found that a large portion of calls to our USCIS Contact Center and questions from people coming into our office were requests that could have been answered on our website.”
Cannon said applying online is more efficient because mailing applications in puts it at risk for being lost. The online process also won’t let applicants forget to include needed information because it won’t let you submit it unless everything is complete.
To visit that website, click here.
To view naturalization statistics, click here.