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Feds Postpone Oath Ceremonies; Fewer New Citizens to Vote

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Wednesday, September 30, 2020   

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A federal agency's decision to postpone naturalization ceremonies due to COVID-19 is likely to mean hundreds of thousands of people won't be able to vote in the November election -- and critics of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency say the move can't be viewed in isolation.

Even before the pandemic, said Mary-Kathryn Harcombe, legal director at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, wait times for citizenship applications have gotten longer. She said she believes the agency could have readily implemented virtual or socially distanced oath ceremonies -- the final step in the naturalization process -- rather than shutting them down.

"So, it's not just something bad that has happened because of the pandemic," she said. "It is sort of the culmination of what has seemed almost like a campaign to discourage people from naturalizing, by making the process slower and slower and slower."

So far, the agency hasn't released a plan for resuming ceremonies, and it's unclear how many people are waiting to take their citizenship oaths. According to agency data, USCIS completed around 156,000 naturalizations between March and August.

A Pew Research Center study this year found that an estimated 23 million naturalized citizens would be eligible to vote in November. However, Harcombe noted that those who haven't yet completed the process have had their hopes dashed.

"The fact that they have taken every step, and did so in a timely manner," she said, "only to now be told that this final little step -- just this swearing-in ceremony -- could prevent them from voting in this election is just devastating for them."

Harcombe also said the agency has, in the past few years, implemented more measures aimed at making citizenship harder to obtain.

"USCIS is traditionally not partisan," she said. "USCIS is not involved in enforcement; they aren't involved in any sort of the harsher aspects. In the last four years, USCIS has really shifted its focus and its attitude."

The agency had also announced rate hikes that will nearly double the cost of becoming a citizen. As of this Friday, Oct. 2, it would have cost a person almost $1,200 just to file the application.

However, on Tuesday, a federal court temporarily blocked the massive fee hike. Dozens of fees related to the immigration process are slated to increase as well.

The Pew study is at pewresearch.org.


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