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Trump administration's citizenship backlogs add urgency to naturalization campaign

“We are seeing that this administration is trying to limit and lengthen the time it takes for a person to obtain citizenship," an immigration activist says.
Image: George Escobar
George Escobar, chief of programs and services for CASA of Maryland, discusses a "Naturalize Now" campaign to help 1 million legal residents become U.S. citizens, at a news conference in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Wednesday.Maria Pena / Telemundo

HYATTSVILLE, Md. — Immigrant rights groups are warning legal residents eligible for citizenship to apply now because Trump administration backlogs and impending policies could delay many naturalizations past the 2020 elections in many parts of the country.

The National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of 39 immigrant advocacy groups, issued the warning Wednesday as it launched its “Naturalize Now” campaign.

Diego Iñiguez-Lopez, the coalition's policy and campaigns manager, said that before the 2016 elections, application processing times were about seven months to a year. Now, the process takes 13 to 23 months in some Citizenship and Immigration Services offices, others more than 20 months and some more than 30 months.

"Our message to immigrant communities is now is the time to apply for citizenship and, once you get that, to vote," Iñiguez-Lopez said. He said the group also is reminding legal residents that with citizenship comes access to better jobs, the ability to travel without worry and protection for themselves and their families.

Isabel Sanchez, an activist with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, told Telemundo that the group is issuing its message to the estimated 9 million legal residents eligible for citizenship because “we are seeing that this administration is trying to limit and lengthen the time it takes for a person to obtain citizenship."

The nonpartisan coalition plans to award $60,000 in grants to help 1 million eligible legal residents apply for citizenship in hopes that they will be able to vote next year.

The coalition also plans to urge naturalizations through Spanish language announcements on radio, information workshops, churches, community groups and other pipelines.

Such campaigns have become regular fare in the lead-up to a presidential election.

But President Donald Trump’s drastic revisions of immigration policy through regulation rewrites, policy changes and proposed executive actions are slowing down the route to citizenship and threaten to make it almost impossible for some, particularly lower income immigrants.

With about 18 months to go before the election, in some ZIP codes, citizenship applications filed now would not be completed before the general election, said Doug Rand, a former White House adviser who worked on immigration policy. Rand co-founded Boundless Immigration, a company that helps immigrants through the immigration process.

Interviews required for citizenship must be done in local field offices. “If local is in Cleveland and Buffalo, the wait time is short. Field offices like Saint Paul are blasting past two years,” Rand said.

The administration has proposed at least three changes to the forms that immigrants must fill out in the citizenship process, changes that will make it harder to obtain documents and require answering more complex questions. Fingerprinting exemptions for people older than 75 have been eliminated, and people with disabilities face more scrutiny.

In addition, immigration advocates are bracing for big increases in fees charged for citizenship and other immigration benefits and a potential elimination of waivers of fees that are provided for poor immigrants.

Jessica Collins, a Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman, defended the agency's work in an emailed response to NBC News' questions. She blamed agency backlogs on a doubling of pending cases during the Obama administration, saying their numbers had reached 700,000 at the start of 2017.

Waits are more a function of higher application rates than slow processing, she said. The agency has added more staff, put in place process and operational reforms, and added facilities, she said. The agency completed a five-year high in new oaths of citizenship and number of applications processed.

Backlogs have occurred in other election cycles. In 2016, personnel were shifted to offices with greater backlogs, but under Trump the wait times in February were nearly double from two years earlier.

One of the biggest backlogs came during the George W. Bush administration, as immigrants tried to get their applications in before a 2007 spike in application fees and a national naturalization campaign. They were further motivated by the House bill H.R. 4437, a crackdown on illegal immigration sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. Its passage in the House — it failed in the Senate — led to protests in cities around the country.

The National Partnership for New Americans sued the Trump administration over the backlogs, demanding that the agency make public documents regarding the longer wait times.

Maria Peña reported from Hyattsville, and Suzanne Gamboa from Austin, Texas.