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New MPI Report Details Growing Obstacles to U.S. Citizenship & Examines Potential for Further Disruption due to COVID-19 Slowdown, USCIS Budget Turmoil & Fee Increases
Press Release
Thursday, July 16, 2020

New MPI Report Details Growing Obstacles to U.S. Citizenship & Examines Potential for Further Disruption due to COVID-19 Slowdown, USCIS Budget Turmoil & Fee Increases

WASHINGTON — The 9 million immigrants who are eligible for U.S. citizenship face growing obstacles to naturalization as the result of changed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) adjudications standards and a recasting of the agency’s mission to prioritize fraud detection over customer service, a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of a survey of 110 naturalization assistance providers across the United States finds.

While USCIS continues to approve the vast majority of naturalization applications it receives, the agency took nearly twice as long to process the average case in fiscal 2019 than was the case three years earlier, with case backlogs increasing as applications have been kicked back more frequently with requests for more information and English and civics tests have been administered more strictly. This increased vetting of applications was happening before a trio of new developments could significantly reduce citizenship acquisition for qualified immigrants in the months and years ahead:

  • COVID-19-related delays that shut down USCIS in-person interviews for three months, delaying the citizenship oath-taking for more than 100,000 would-be Americans,
  • the imminent furlough of two-thirds of the agency’s staff in early August unless Congress provides emergency funding to address a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, and
  • a citizenship fee increase from $640 to up to $1,170 that is scheduled to go into effect in September, alongside a restriction in eligibility for fee waivers for low-income applicants.

“The seeds of the current budget crisis were sown before the pandemic when USCIS put more intensive vetting and fraud detection in place, along with other policies that have reduced application levels,” said Randy Capps, who is director for research for U.S. programs at MPI. “Now the pandemic and anticipated furlough threaten to further slow application processing at the same time that the fee is set to increase substantially, creating much higher hurdles and potentially deterring people from applying for citizenship.”

In its latest report, MPI examines the effects of changing USCIS standards and procedures during the Trump administration, drawing from a survey of 110 naturalization assistance providers in 34 metro areas administered by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) between March – September 2019. These groups are among more than 200 providers in the ILRC’s New Americans Campaign, which has assisted more than 470,000 people in completing their citizenship applications.

The report, A Rockier Road to U.S. Citizenship? Findings of a Survey on Changing Naturalization Procedures, finds:

  • About one-quarter of survey respondents reported their clients missed interviews when USCIS sent notices to incorrect addresses, sent them too late or sent them to the attorney, not the applicant.
  • More than one-third reported USCIS more often issued requests for evidence (RFEs) to support applications, especially for documents related to tax compliance and income, continuous residency and physical presence, marriage and child support, and criminal history, with one-quarter reporting substantially more documents being required.
  • USCIS officers asked detailed questions not directly related to citizenship eligibility, and administered the English and civics tests differently, often more strictly, according to 10 percent of respondents.

Most of these changes were common among the 52 USCIS offices across the country covered by the survey, suggesting these shifts in adjudication practice likely represent changes in USCIS policy or broad-based agency culture, rather than being limited to individual office or adjudicator practices.

The report underscores the importance of oversight of naturalization procedures to ensure that the country reserves citizenship for those who fully meet its requirements and preserves the lawful claims of legal permanent residents to the full civic and political rights that citizenship brings. Yet even as USCIS has shifted its mission to increased vetting and fraud detection, studies have shown little to no evidence of naturalization fraud.

“USCIS’ stricter adjudicating processes have accomplished nothing aside from increasing the time and costs associated with completing the naturalization process,” said Eric Cohen, executive director of the ILRC. “Increased obstacles to citizenship prevent qualified U.S. residents from voting, running for public office, traveling without visas to many other countries, sponsoring family for immigration and many other benefits. They have no demonstrated impact on fraud prevention, which is nearly non-existent to begin with.”

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/changing-uscis-naturalization-procedures.

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The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.