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Backlogs Block the Road to Citizenship and Voting

Backlogs Block the Road to Citizenship and Voting

Thursday, October 7, 2004

Growing numbers of would-be citizens are being deprived of the right to vote, because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) fails to process naturalization applications in a timely fashion. Due to factors discussed below, fewer immigrants are being naturalized to vote than in prior years, backlogs of unadjudicated cases are growing, and processing times are lengthening.

Tens of Thousands of Immigrants Cannot Vote Because of Naturalization Delays

As the 2000 elections demonstrated, every single vote counts. Election outcomes can hinge on just a few hundred votes. It is troubling, therefore, that significant numbers of would-be citizens will not be able to vote in the upcoming elections because USCIS has failed to keep its promise of processing naturalization applications within six months.

In New York, an estimated 60,000 more persons would be able to vote in November if their naturalization applications had been processed in six months.* In Florida, an estimated 25,000 additional new citizens would be eligible to vote if they had been naturalized within six months of filing their applications; instead, they are stuck in a 21-month naturalization backlog in USCIS’s Miami office. (In Florida, the margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election was 537 votes.) In New Jersey, an emerging battleground state, around 9,000 immigrants will not be able to vote due to the naturalization backlog, and in Arizona, around 5,000 would-be citizens will not be able to vote because of a 13-month backlog.

Fewer Immigrants Naturalized

The number of immigrants sworn in as U.S. citizens nationwide dropped by almost 20 percent from 2002 to 2003, according to USCIS figures. In FY 2002, 573,708 immigrants were naturalized nationwide. In FY 2003, only 463,204 immigrants were naturalized nationwide. Naturalizations in FY 2004 are on pace to remain low: Only 418,332 immigrants were naturalized nationwide in the first ten months of FY 2004, according to the latest numbers provided by USCIS headquarters.

The slowdown in naturalizations was most severe in New York State, and by extension, New York City. The number of New York State residents naturalized dropped from 94,276 in FY 2002 to 63,945 in FY 2003 – a difference of more than 30,000 naturalizations and a 32 percent decline – the steepest decline in the nation.** (By comparison, California, which handles the largest volume of cases, had 149,554 immigrants naturalized in FY 2002 but 135,815 immigrants naturalized in FY 2003 – a drop of 13,739 naturalizations, or 9 percent.) Figures for FY 2004 from the New York District Office (which covers the New York City metropolitan area) indicate that 60,189 immigrants were naturalized in FY 2004, compared with 60,813 in FY 2003 and 90,596 in FY 2002.

Growing Backlog of Naturalization Cases

Not surprisingly, while the number of naturalizations continues to decline, the backlog of unadjudicated naturalization cases continues to increase. More than 678,000 cases remain pending nationwide, according to the latest USCIS figures. This reflects a steady increase from one year ago, when 631,000 cases were pending.

Of all the USCIS offices, New York City has by far the largest share of naturalization cases in the backlog. More than 126,000 cases (out of 678,000 nationwide) remain pending in New York City, according to the latest USCIS figures. (The next closest is Los Angeles, with 83,000 pending cases.) The naturalization backlog in New York has increased since last year, when New York City had 112,000 cases pending.

Processing Times Increasing

It also takes increasingly longer for naturalization cases to be completed. Less than two years ago, it took 11 months on average to process a naturalization case in the New York district. Today, it takes 19 months or more.

Reasons for Decline in Naturalization

Various factors account for the decrease in naturalizations and lengthier delays. One reason is that the immigration service’s already-limited resources are regularly diverted away from applications processing to deal with the “crisis of the moment.” In 2003, for example, backlogs grew worse because adjudications officers were pulled away from their normal casework in order to carry out the Special Registration program, which required immigration staff to fingerprint, photograph, and interrogate more than 83,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants across the nation. Special Registration was a monumental failure in improving national security – not a single terrorist was uncovered through it – but it succeeded in clogging up operations in the New York District Office and other large immigration offices around the country for many months, adding to the pile of naturalization cases that still have not been processed.

A shortage of staff and resources to handle the proliferation of new security checks has also caused increasing delays in naturalization processing. Local districts have to run multiple layers of security checks on every application but have not been given sufficient staffing or infrastructural support necessary to handle this efficiently. Every naturalization applicant is now subjected to at least three kinds of security checks: (1) Interagency Border Information System (IBIS) database checks; (2) FBI fingerprint checks, valid for 15 months; and (3) FBI namechecks. Regarding the latter, immigration officials report that it is taking an extremely long time to receive a response from FBI and that this is dragging out the processing times for every type of application. Unfortunately, unfunded mandates issued by agency heads in Washington, D.C. with little concern for local district office capacity put adjudications staff at these local offices in an impossible situation.

The above factors are exacerbating the chronic shortage of adjudications staff and inadequate funding that have long plagued the immigration service. Unfortunately, local immigration officials in New York report that they may be losing another 12 adjudications officers as of the end of FY 2004, 6 of whom would be lost from the naturalization unit. Unless immigration services offices receive the staff and funding that they realistically need, there is little chance that naturalization and other immigration services will improve anytime soon.


* The starting point for these estimates is the number of pending naturalization cases in each district. The estimated number of cases received within the past six months is subtracted from this pending “pile.” The resulting number (i.e., cases pending for more than six months) is then “filtered” through a 75 percent approval rate for naturalization cases.

** U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2003 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.


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