Backlog could prevent hundreds of thousands of immigrants from becoming citizens before the election

Delays in key swing states could decide the 2016 election.

Sixty individuals are sworn in as American citizens by Judge David Lawson during a United States Citizenship and immigration Services Naturalization Ceremony before the baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, June 29, 2016 in Detroit. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Sixty individuals are sworn in as American citizens by Judge David Lawson during a United States Citizenship and immigration Services Naturalization Ceremony before the baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, June 29, 2016 in Detroit. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Long Island attorney Elise Damas usually helps about 500 immigrants become U.S. citizens each year. This year, she has seen applications double, and says the vast majority of her clients cite a primary motivation.

“They dislike Donald Trump’s rhetoric. They’re angry about the way he has portrayed their communities. They’re afraid of what would happen if Trump became president,” she told ThinkProgress. “Some of these people have been residents for 40 or 50 years, but they’ve never been inspired to become citizens until Trump walked onto the national stage.”

Damas works with the immigrant rights organization CARECEN, which has seen more than 1,000 prospective citizens this year alone. While the majority of her clients come from Central America, she has helped people from 49 different countries, including South Africa, Korea, Italy, and Turkey.

Sitting in an office hung with beaded and woven art from around the world, she glanced out in the hall where a long line of mostly older Salvadoran men and women sat silently waiting. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.

“They’re afraid of what would happen if Trump became president.”

While citizenship applications tend to increase in every presidential election year, the rest of the country is also reporting a record spike in 2016. Nearly a million people have applied for citizenship since the beginning of this year, many of them similarly motivated by fear of a Donald Trump presidency. Though these applicants are a small fraction of the nearly 9 million immigrants eligible to become citizens, it’s enough to potentially change the outcome of the 2016 election — especially in key swing states like Colorado, Florida, and Nevada.

But thanks to a severe backlog at the federal agency that processes these applications — United States Immigration and Citizenship Services — more than half of these would-be citizens may not be able to cast a ballot in November. A study by the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) found that more than 500,000 people could be disenfranchised by what they called an “avoidable” backlog.

“Those who applied to become citizens before June of this year should have been able to complete their exams, take their oaths, and register to vote by November,” the NPNA said. “USCIS should have anticipated the surge in applications and dedicated the appropriate staff and resources to reducing the delays at the Federal agency, as well as in field offices around the country.”

CREDIT: National Partnership for New Americans.
CREDIT: National Partnership for New Americans.

The report identifies 15 states — dubbed “Disenfranchisement Danger Zones” due to the length of their backlog — many of which are also key swing states that will decide the 2016 election. If tens of thousands of eligible applicants in Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are not processed, and if polls remain close, it could cost Hillary Clinton victory both in those states and nationally.

With the voter registration deadline in many states mere weeks away, prospective citizens are anxiously waiting the outcome of their cases. They have already paid hundreds of dollars in fees, taken hundreds of hours of English and civics classes, and submitted to extensive background checks.

Sarang Sekhavat, the federal policy director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, says he has clients from all around the world fearful they too will fall into a “disenfranchisement zone.”

“The citizenship process generally takes four months, but we’re seeing it get worse and worse,” he told ThinkProgress. “We have a lot of cases taking seven months or more, and we had one client wait more than a year between having her fingerprints taken and having her interview scheduled. A lot of folks are really nervous.”

Sekhavat’s colleague, Liza Ryan, added: “People who applied early in the year because they really wanted to vote have been frantically calling us saying, ‘Why am I not getting an interview? I gave my fingerprints. I gave my biometric info.’ These delays are egregious.”