After halting all naturalization ceremonies several months ago amid the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has sworn in more than 2,000 new citizens since reopening field offices last week.
That’s just a fraction of the usual volume of new citizens ushered in by USCIS, the Homeland Security agency that oversees the naturalization process and allocates immigration visas. Pre-pandemic, around 60,000 people were naturalized every month, according to government data.
The naturalization ceremonies are the last legally required step before an immigrant transitions from permanent resident to U.S. citizen. But USCIS suspended all in-person services — including naturalization oath ceremonies — on March 18 to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
The agency resumed conducting naturalization ceremonies on June 4 under restrictive conditions to enable social distancing and other safety precautions, said USCIS spokesman Joe Sowers.
The National Partnership of New Americans, a coalition of state, federal and local organizations that help naturalized citizens register to vote, estimated that 860,000 people were scheduled to become U.S. citizens this year. That was before pandemic-related shutdowns, however.
And while ceremonies have just resumed, they may face another interruption if USCIS implements furloughs next month amid a budget crisis it hopes to fix with congressional help.
In May, USCIS cited a projected budget shortfall and asked Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding. The agency said if it doesn’t get the appropriations, it will begin to furlough employees by July 20. But a Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee said lawmakers still have not received a formal appropriations request, so the status remains unclear.
USCIS did not respond to a request for answers on how naturalization ceremonies would continue if agency employees are laid off.
For months, Republicans and Democrats have urged the Trump administration to hold virtual naturalization ceremonies to help ease the backlog of immigrants waiting to take the final step before citizenship.
“Given the unprecedented circumstances currently facing our country, we ask that these authorities be utilized to remotely administer or waive the Oath of Allegiance amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., in a letter last week to Attorney General William Barr, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, and Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security. “In addition to providing certainty to thousands of immigrant families, this effort would prevent unnecessary increases to our preexisting naturalization backlog.”
The House in the pandemic aid bill it passed last month included a provision to require DHS to determine a way to administer naturalization ceremonies remotely. But Sowers, the USCIS spokesman, said current immigration law forbids that.
“Naturalization ceremonies are required to be public, and under the Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations, the applicant must ‘appear in person’ to take the Oath of Allegiance,” Sowers said in a statement.
“These legal requirements pose obstacles to administering the oath virtually. In addition, virtual oath ceremonies would present logistical challenges,” he said.
Eric Cohen, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said his organization has concerns even if oath ceremonies are allowed to continue in person because of safety risks to immigrants with compromised immune systems.
“Republicans and Democrats agree that people should be given their oath if once they've passed their exam and been interviewed, and they fulfilled all the other requirements,” Cohen said in an interview. “It's really all about whether or not the USCIS wants to do the right thing, the legally mandated thing, and swear people in through a virtual process for those of those who need it.”
A steep drop in the number of new citizens could have a drastic effect at the ballot box this fall. More than 23 million U.S. immigrants were expected to become eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election, or about 10 percent of the nation's electorate, according to a Pew Research Center report released in February, weeks before the nation began to shut down.