Citizenship ceremonies across the United States have become yet another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
The system for swearing in new Americans screeched to a virtual standstill for months. And it’s only just starting to get going again.
What could that mean for the 2020 election? One company that helps immigrants apply for green cards and citizenship says it did the math.
Seattle-based Boundless Immigration warns that because of the large number of ceremonies that were postponed, thousands of would-be citizens might not make the cut in time to cast ballots in November — unless officials take significant steps to push through the backlog.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services officials say they’re reopening some offices this week and starting to reschedule ceremonies, while following CDC guidelines to protect workers and the public.
About 765,000 people become US citizens every year — averaging out to 2,100 new citizens a day, according to a Boundless analysis of government data. That, Boundless says, means more than 120,000 immigrants who would have taken citizenship oaths over the past few months are in limbo — waiting for word on when their ceremonies will be rescheduled. And the number grows with each passing day.
“I was really upset. … I want to vote, but I don’t know if I’ll be a citizen in time,” says 24-year-old Asma Akhter, whose swearing-in was canceled twice in March. A home health aide in New York City who came to the United States from Bangladesh in 2014, she says she feels like her personal life and career are on hold now, too.
“I’m waiting,” she says. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Some want the ceremonies to go online. Officials say that’s not an option
Advocates and some lawmakers say there’s a simple solution that would speed up citizenship ceremonies and eliminate concerns about safely social distancing during an ongoing public health crisis: administering the oaths remotely.
“Here’s a great example of something that could be done virtually and achieve the same outcomes,” Boundless CEO Xiao Wang says. “That would be the one lever that would actually start driving down the backlog and make a difference.”
USCIS says it plans to shorten naturalization ceremonies and limit attendance to those being sworn in and individuals providing assistance for the disabled.
But the agency that schedules and oversees naturalization ceremonies says its citizenship oaths won’t be going remote.
“Naturalizing new United States citizens is a critical benefit we administer at USCIS and we’re working hard to resume that process,” Joseph Edlow, the agency’s deputy director for policy, said in a written statement provided to CNN. “However, we will not ignore federal law, which has clear in-person requirements for naturalization, in the name of convenience or expediency.”
In a recent letter, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich urged the agency to consider administering remote oaths. And a coronavirus relief bill passed by the House last month included provisions for temporarily holding remote ceremonies due to the public health crisis.
Advocates argue remote citizenship ceremonies should be allowed under existing guidelines.
“They’re picking and choosing which portions of the law they’re highlighting. … The logistical problems, those are solvable and could be overcome with the will to do so. It’s disingenuous to say that they can’t do it for legal reasons,” says Melissa Rodgers, director of programs for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which leads the New Americans Campaign — a program that works with nonprofits across the country to help lawful permanent residents of the United States become citizens.
Regulations allow officials to waive certain requirements in special circumstances, Rodgers says.
“If this is not a special circumstance,” she says, “what is?”
Some smaller ceremonies have already started
The scene that played out on the steps of the York County Courthouse was different from a typical citizenship ceremony.
Instead of being packed into a courtroom, meeting room or auditorium with throngs of well-wishers looking on, each new citizen stood far apart. They were outside and wearing masks. And the ceremony was smaller and shorter.
Allison Blew says that was a solution she settled on with local USCIS officials after a ceremony for about 50 people got canceled in March. Blew is tasked with facilitating naturalization ceremonies in York County, Pennsylvania, as the county’s prothonotary — a clerk who handles civil matters. The county hosted multiple small ceremonies in May, she says, swearing in six new citizens at each one.
“I just wanted to help them in any way that we could. They’ve been working towards this for years,” she said. “I can only imagine how heartbreaking it was, a week before your ceremony to be told, ‘I’m sorry. We can’t do this.'”
Blew says the modified ceremonies have been jubilant occasions she’s looking forward to repeating.
“With half of their face covered, it’s difficult to see smiles, but you can see their eyes crinkle. It was a very joyous time, which was great. It was like a little ray of sunshine among this pandemic,” she says. “There were definitely some teary eyes. There were shouts of joy, and lots of clapping.”
USCIS says it’s working to schedule more ceremonies and keep them safe
One of the people cheering on the courthouse steps last week was 30-year-old Mickhail Thames.
Thames, who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica eight years ago and now works as a materials specialist at a packaging company, says he was pleasantly surprised his ceremony was rescheduled so quickly after it was canceled. And the smaller crowd and shorter, outdoor ceremony, he said, didn’t dampen his spirits.
“We didn’t mind standing out there,” he says. “We were doing what it takes to stay safe.”
Edlow, the deputy director for policy at USCIS, said the agency has started using “new social distancing formats” for ceremonies even as other in-person services remained on hold.
“The rate of these new ceremonies are increasing as our workforce becomes more adept at implementing them for larger groups and when appropriate health and safety precautions can be followed,” he said.
He added that holding timely citizenship ceremonies remains a key aim of the agency, pointing out that last year, naturalizations reached an 11-year high.
But advocates say more needs to be done
The agency’s announcement that it’s resuming ceremonies is a good first step, says Eric Cohen, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
“But it’s nowhere near enough,” Cohen said.
“Schoolteachers like my wife have figured out how to use technology to reach students, and there’s no good reason why USCIS cannot do the same to serve their customers,” he said. “The federal government’s position is akin to telling graduating high school or college seniors that they cannot have their duly earned diplomas and degrees due to the inability to safely hold a graduation ceremony.”
And in the meantime, advocates argue that thousands of immigrants stuck in limbo are being harmed as a result.
“There’s already people missing out,” Rodgers said. “Elections are happening already. People are already being denied the right to vote. This is a presidential election year, and disenfranchising people is not what our country should be doing.”
This would-be citizen says voting isn’t his only concern
Carsten Kieffer says he’s hoping to vote this year — but that wasn’t the top concern on his mind when his April 1 citizenship interview got canceled.
The 41-year-old, who came to the United States from Denmark in 2007 and serves as a lieutenant-paramedic for a Florida fire department, says his green card expires on June 30. He’s not sure what will happen if he doesn’t become a citizen by then.
“I worked hard to get where I’m at in my career,” he said, “and I’d hate to lose it all because of the virus.”
Kieffer says he’s planning to call USCIS as soon as offices reopen. But he knows thousands of others will be, too.
“With over 100,000 people in the line, where do I stand?” he said. “And am I going to lose everything?”