Unusual surge in filings has created huge backlog
BY DIANNE SOLIS
DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS
FORT WORTH, Texas – Carlos Chavez walked with great purpose, despite his cane. The 85-year-old Mexico-born immigrant and physician finally became a U.S. citizen at a recent music-filled ceremony at the iconic Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
The retired doctor is one of many immigrants pushing the number of citizenship applications to new highs — especially in Texas, which leads the nation by percentage increase.
Some call it the Trump effect. The harsh rhetoric of President Donald Trump against immigrants, including legal immigrants, is causing an unusual surge in filings that has created a huge backlog of about 709,000 people in the pipeline for U.S. citizenship.
Chavez said he filed his naturalization application “to prevent any problems” after the presidential election, even though he was here legally long before Trump moved into the White House.
His wife, Isabel Clement, also a naturalized U.S. citizen, was more direct and defensive. Candidate Trump infamously labeled Mexican immigrants drug traffickers and rapists. “We aren’t assassins or rateros” — rats — said Clement, an engineer. “We have contributed to this country.”
Lawful permanent residents, or so-called green-carders, can still be deported if they commit an increasing number of offenses. But becoming a U.S. citizen provides security and the right to vote. Studies show that naturalized citizens vote with greater vigor than native-born citizens.
1 million applicants
Marco Antonio Avila draped a Catholic rosary around his neck to commemorate the Fort Worth ceremony at the museum. The 35-year-old Mexican immigrant from Fort Worth said he took the step of moving from legal permanent resident to U.S. citizenship because he’d have more rights and could vote.
Then, there is Trump.
“All the stuff he is trying to do!” Avila said. “The U.S. was founded by immigrants. So I don’t know why they want to send us back.”
The Chicago-based National Partnership for New Americans estimates there will be more than 1 million applicants for citizenship this fiscal year.
That’s unusual because the large number comes after a presidential election year, said Joshua Hoyt, the partnership’s executive director.
Increase in 2007
Usually, increases in applications come before an election, as in 2007, when Barack Obama was first a presidential candidate. Total application fees nearly doubled then, Hoyt said.
Application numbers after the 2008 presidential election dropped below 600,000, government statistics show.
“So these numbers are extraordinary,” Hoyt said.
Texas leads because of its pool of potential citizens, Hoyt said. But also because people “are afraid and angry and want to participate in our democracy,” he added.
In Texas, there was a 61 percent jump in applications from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2017, according to the partnership’s study.
In addition to gaining the right to vote and the easing of deportation fears, money should be another motivation for naturalization, say citizenship proponents.
Naturalized citizens earn more than noncitizens, are less likely to be unemployed, and are better represented in highly skilled jobs, according to a 2012 economic study by the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.
Nevertheless, Sarah Pierce, a lawyer and associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, believes that “the charged political climate” is contributing heavily to increases in citizenship filings and to an increase in citizenship workshops by nonprofits across the country.
“When you are a green card holder, you are still vulnerable to deportation,” Pierce said. “Considering statements made by our politicians and the increased interior enforcement, people are very motivated to rid themselves of that risk and secure citizenship.”
Hoyt said he is especially worried about the backlog of nearly 709,000 applications for citizenship being handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security Department agency that handles such matters.
Those applicants have already qualified for legal permanent residency and have waited the generally required five years to apply for naturalization.
They also must be able to read, write and speak basic English, with some exceptions for those of advanced age. They study U.S. history and take a civics test, as well. The application fees are now $725.
Average wait time
For the nation, the average wait is nearly nine months, said Arwen FitzGerald, a spokeswoman for the federal citizenship agency.
FitzGerald said there is no “quick fix” to address the surge in applications. From fiscal year 2015 through fiscal year 2016, as the presidential election neared and candidates staked out their positions on immigration and other issues, there was a 24 percent increase in naturalizations.
Citizenship and Immigration Services is setting aside money for additional employee overtime and has started recruiting to fill vacancies across the federal agency, FitzGerald said.
But Hoyt of the National Partnership for New Americans isn’t sure it is enough. His group’s latest study calls the backlog effectively “a second wall,” a reference to the border wall Trump advocates near the Mexican border.
“The U.S. government owes it to the person to process the application in a speedy manner,” Hoyt said.