September 17, 2018 was “National Citizenship Day,” part of a week when thousands of permanent residents nationwide took the oath in over 100 U.S. cities and territories to become newly naturalized U.S. citizens. For them, this was the culmination of years of contributing to the United States as neighbors, friends, family members, volunteers, workers, employers, and taxpayers, and of reaching for their version of the American Dream.
Permanent residents (“green card” holders) can live and work permanently in the U.S. as long as they follow all of our laws. But only once they become U.S. citizens can they petition to bring their immediate family members such as their parents, siblings, and their married children to the U.S., or apply for certain jobs restricted to citizens, or vote in federal and state elections.
For most immigrants, applying for citizenship involves completing a lengthy and often confusing application form, paying $725 in application fees, undergoing criminal record and security checks, and going through an interview testing their ability to speak, read and write in English, and their knowledge of U.S. history and government. (See this study guide to learn what the test covers).
But many immigrants who may have hoped they could soon naturalize are having their hopes dashed. At the end of the second quarter of FY 2018 (the most recent data available), 753,352 naturalization applicants were stuck in a backlog, including 575 immigrants from Maine. This is a 44% increase over the number of naturalization applications pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the end of FY 2016. Where most N-400 naturalization applications were decided in less than six months under the prior administration, now, the average processing time is over ten months, with many applications pending for nearly two years.
These backlogs not only prevent noncitizens from reuniting their families and voting. They also have an economic cost to them and to the country. Immigrants who become U.S. citizens are more likely to buy a home, to increase their earnings and pay higher taxes, and to have health insurance.
On National Citizenship Day, immigrant advocates filed suit against USCIS to compel it to release data that may help explain the reasons why so many immigrants are having their dreams of becoming U.S. citizens deferred.