Luis Molina had waited months to complete the final step in his decadeslong journey to become an American citizen: repeating the oath of allegiance to the United States along with hundreds of other would-be citizens on March 19.
Molina, a 51-year-old who left El Salvador as a young man, had planned to hold a celebratory dinner at his favorite restaurant in Pasadena, California — President Thai — after the naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles.
To become a US citizen, immigrants must go through a long, and at times arduous, process that includes an interview with an immigration officer and a test on American civics and the English language. The final step, however, is the easiest of them all: repeating 140 words in a celebratory event that’s often held in American theaters, convention centers, and courthouses.
This simple, but legally necessary step, is all that stands in the way of Molina being granted citizenship.
But that opportunity has been on hold: In March, naturalization ceremonies across the country were canceled due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, and the agency that administers immigration benefits, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, closed its offices to the public. The ceremonies are supposed to be rescheduled, but like many other parts of American life, the timing is uncertain.
In the wake of the cancellations, immigrants like Molina fear that they not only won’t get the chance to call themselves Americans anytime soon, but that they won’t be able to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Experts warn that the delayed naturalizations could have an impact on the number of eligible voters in November, as many states require registration by October.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Molina said. He’s watched how the Trump administration has enforced the public charge rule, which penalizes green card applicants for using public benefits, and other restrictive immigration policies. “I’ve been thinking about how they change the rules and the laws and maybe I won’t be able to get citizenship. I feel intimidated.”
A USCIS spokesperson said field offices will send notices with instructions to applicants with scheduled interviews or naturalization ceremony appointments, which will automatically be rescheduled once normal operations resume.
Some ceremonies in Los Angeles that had been scheduled for later in May have yet to be canceled, but California officials have indicated that strict social distancing measures could last beyond that.
Under normal conditions, USCIS is able to naturalize 66,000 immigrants on average every month, according to Sarah Pierce, an analyst at Migration Policy Institute. The agency generally relies on in-person oaths at its office or in larger ceremonies outside of its own facilities.
“So far, because of COVID-19, there are already tens of thousands of immigrants who have had their naturalizations delayed, and these numbers will easily exceed 100,000 as this crisis drags on,” she said.
The agency regularly hosts ceremonies that pack more than 1,000 soon-to-be Americans in one place to conduct the oath altogether. If USCIS offices are able to open as planned on May 3, the agency will still face an inherent challenge: How will large groups of people be quickly naturalized?
“Unless USCIS implements an ambitious series of naturalization ceremonies once they are able to reopen in-person services, there will be tens of thousands of immigrants who will not be able to vote in this fall's election, despite having completed nearly all the legal requirements to receive citizenship,” Pierce said. “Because naturalization ceremonies entail gatherings of large groups of people, there are a lot of outstanding questions about when USCIS will be able to restart these and what exactly they will look like. If the ceremonies are limited by public health concerns, unless USCIS comes up with innovative solutions, these delays could reverberate for years to come.”
Former senior USCIS leaders told BuzzFeed News the cancellations will inevitably have an impact on the number of people who are able to obtain citizenship this year.
“Field offices are 100% closed, meaning not just no naturalization ceremonies, but no naturalization interviews and also no green card interviews,” said Leon Rodriguez, former director of the agency under the Obama administration. “All of this was already severely backlogged before, so the problem will become much worse depending on the length of the closure.”
As of September 2019, there were already more than 600,000 naturalization applications pending.
The naturalization oath has been a long-held American tradition, spanning back to the late 1700s. Before the early 1900s, courts from across the country administered the oath in various ways, and it wasn’t until 1929 that a standardized oath was created. Later, the Immigration Act of 1950 added language to the oath that made immigrants promise to bear arms for the US and perform “noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law.”
There are waivers for the requirement to recite the oath, like if an individual does not agree to bear arms for the US because of religious circumstances or has a developmental disability that prevents them from understanding the oath, but in most circumstances it is required.
“It's like being on the 1-yard line and suddenly there's a timeout that may last for months. If you can't take the oath of allegiance — a pro forma final step but a moving one — then you can't become a US citizen,” said Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House and is now the cofounder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship. “That means you can't vote, of course. It also means you can't count on being safe from deportation or on protecting your family by sponsoring them for US citizenship.”
Rand has advocated for the agency to skip the live event altogether in light of the pandemic, while others have called for oaths to be administered via televideo.
Duncan Williams, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, had also been scheduled to recite the oath of citizenship in Los Angeles on March 19. Williams, 50, came to the country as a 17-year-old from Japan for college. The Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies — such as the travel ban and the policy that led to families being separated at the border — created a sense of urgency for Williams to obtain his citizenship.
“What is more unsettling is the uncertainty about the future implicated in the inability to complete the naturalization process,” he said.
Williams had expected to get his US passport and vote in the upcoming elections, confident in his status as an American.
“As a Japanese national,” he said, “I’ve been observing the rising anti-Asian sentiment in the US with some trepidation, with some regret that the protections afforded to citizens is not something I can secure at the present time.”