Immigrants sue government over delayed citizenship ceremonies

Pandemic postponed ceremony for two immigrants, who want to become Americans in time to register to vote this fall

The naturalization ceremony is a formality, but a legally required step before an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The naturalization ceremony is a formality, but a legally required step before an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 12, 2020 at 2:41pm

Two immigrants whose U.S. citizenship ceremony was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic have sued the federal government, hoping to expedite the naturalization process they need to complete to vote in this fall’s presidential election.

The class-action lawsuit was filed this week on behalf of two permanent residents whose naturalization applications were approved by the Philadelphia field office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But their oath ceremonies, along with thousands of others, were postponed after the USCIS shut down its offices in mid-March to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Attorneys in their lawsuit wrote that it would take several months, at best, before the Philadelphia field office could administer the oath of U.S. allegiance. “Meanwhile, Plaintiffs and putative class members would continue to be denied the rights and privileges conferred by U.S. citizenship," they said.

The plaintiffs have asked that their naturalization process be expedited so they can be sworn in as Americans by late September, ensuring they can register in time to vote in the fall.

“There has been so much negative fallout from the pandemic, including delaying the rights of citizenship to hundreds of lawful permanent residents in the Philadelphia area, every one of whom has already had their application approved, but now have been unable to complete the oath — the last step of the citizenship process,” said Matt Adams, legal director for Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which filed the lawsuit along with the National Immigration Litigation Alliance and others.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the USCIS, did not immediately respond to a request Friday for comment on the lawsuit.

The naturalization oath ceremony is the final legally required step before someone transitions from permanent resident to American citizen. The USCIS resumed conducting naturalization ceremonies on June 4, and the agency said it has naturalized nearly 2,000 individuals to date.

But that falls short of the 60,000 people the agency naturalized every month before the pandemic, according to government data.

For weeks, the USCIS has dismissed the idea of holding virtual naturalization ceremonies despite pleas from advocacy groups and congressional lawmakers.

“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,” USCIS spokesman Joe Sowers said.

However, some field offices, including the one in Santa Ana, California, will soon conduct drive-thru ceremonies for thousands of people there.

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. But that was prior to pandemic-related shutdowns.