A pair of would-be US citizens have filed a lawsuit to force immigration officials to schedule the oath ceremony they need to become Americans in time to register to vote in the presidential election this fall.
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.
The lawsuit, filed this week in a federal court in Pennsylvania, says the two plaintiffs are among thousands of immigrants who had their ceremonies canceled or not scheduled as the coronavirus spread rapidly in March.
“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 the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which filed the lawsuit along with other organizations. “Fortunately, Congress provided a tool for rare situations like this to allow the federal court to provide expedited oath ceremonies or to instruct USCIS to provide immediate administrative naturalizations.”
Earlier this month, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reopened offices and began conducting smaller naturalization ceremonies. On Friday, the agency conducted 50 ceremonies and naturalized almost 2,000 people across the US. Before the pandemic, however, ceremonies could accommodate up to 5,000 immigrants at once. Moving forward, the agency plans to focus its resources on conducting quick but smaller ceremonies to allow for social distancing measures.
USCIS officials have said that the rate of the ceremonies is increasing as they become "more adept" at implementing them in areas where they can host larger groups; they have also said that ceremonies are being conducted and scheduled across the country.
“A key aim of this agency has been and continues to be the timely naturalization of qualified and vetted candidates for American citizenship. Any suggestion to the contrary ignores an 11-year high in naturalizations last year and a 12% reduction in pending naturalizations,” a USCIS spokesperson said.
It’s this process, however, that has the attorneys worried that their clients won’t get their citizenship in time for voter registration in Philadelphia on Oct. 19.
“It will take several months, under current measures, for the USCIS Philadelphia Field Office to administer the oath of allegiance to Plaintiffs and proposed class members,” the attorneys said in the lawsuit.
The advocacy groups want a federal judge to order USCIS to institute “expedited” ceremonies for hundreds of immigrants in the region that could include oaths done by judges and others over the phone or video, among other options to ensure that the would-be citizens are sworn in three weeks prior to the voter registration deadline.
Officials have said that virtual ceremonies are not possible because they need to be public, would cause logistical issues, and would rely on third-party software that would not be secure enough. USCIS also conducts verifications of identity and records prior to the oath that need to be done in person, agency officials said.
“In-person ceremonies allow USCIS to check official identification materials against the list of eligible candidates and ensure that the applicant is within the United States and within the area over which the particular field office has jurisdiction,” an agency spokesperson said.
Experts have warned that the delayed naturalizations could have an impact on the number of eligible voters in November, as many states require registration by October. As of September 2019, there were already more than 600,000 naturalization applications pending.
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.
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.”