Rissi Pacheco didn’t think her voice mattered despite attending protests. Pacheco, 30, lived in fear because of her immigration status. But that all changed because of a ceremony that took less than 10 minutes.
“I’ve been wanting to fight full force, but I haven’t been able to because I can’t get arrested,” said Pacheco, who was sworn in this past week as a U.S. citizen. “I’m unleashed.”
But many others hoping to become citizens are stuck in limbo — for some possibly until after November’s presidential election — because of coronavirus shutdown-related delays that have helped fuel a big backlog for naturalization.
Nationwide, more than 700,000 people had pending naturalization applications as of March 31, according to the most recent data available from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In Chicago, there were 21,977 pending applications.
The Chicago figure was down from the same time period in 2018, when 27,238 applications were pending. The number of naturalization applicants denied rose from 479 in the first three months of 2018 to 1,008 in the first three months of 2020, according to USCIS.
It will be almost impossible for those who applied in January to have their applications processed in time for the election, said Eréndira Rendón of the Resurrection Project, a community organization that focuses on immigration. Typically, election years see an uptick in these applications.
“People may have filed their citizenship applications late last year and earlier this year fully expecting to be processed and be sworn in time to vote in November,” said Fred Tsao, the senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an advocacy group. “Having the agency shut down essentially for four months throws a huge wrench into those plans.”
In recent weeks, USCIS has begun conducting smaller and shorter ceremonies, like the one where Pacheco was sworn in, to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
The backlog has prompted Democratic and Republican politicians to urge the Trump administration to take steps to end the delays to citizenship, some suggesting remote ceremonies, The New York Times has reported.
USCIS also faces a budget crisis that could see as many as 13,000 workers furloughed.
Some delays — such as fingerprinting applicants — are directly tied to pandemic restrictions, Tsao said.
But immigration organizations in Chicago say that, over the past few years, the federal agency increasingly has demanded more paperwork to prove work or school history in what some think is an effort to slow down the citizenship process. Tsao said some applicants have been asked more than once for the same documents.
The Migration Policy Institute said in a recent report that delays also have been caused by issues with interview notices, longer interviews and government workers asking questions not directly related to citizenship eligibility.
Rosalind Gold, the chief public policy officer for the NALEO Educational Fund, said the processing time for applications has increased from six months in 2016 to more than 13 months currently.
In Chicago, some applications could take four years to process, USCIS tells applicants.
In Latino communities, research has shown that naturalized citizens have higher rates of voter participation than Latinos born in the United States, according to Gold.
“With the right to vote being one of the main reasons that legal permanent residents apply,” she said, “the less newly naturalized citizens there are, the [smaller] the pool of eligible voters there would be for upcoming elections.”
Karina Ayala-Bermejo, president and chief executive officer of the Instituto del Progreso Latino, said the pandemic stopped the Chicago organization from continuing to hold forums, at which they used to process hundreds of applications. Since the pandemic began, the organization has submitted only 28 citizenship applications.
Ayala-Bermejo said many immigrants the group works with also are concerned for relatives because of the uncertainty of how changes to immigration policy might affect non-citizens.
“It’s a race to get the family in the most stable immigration position because of all the recent changes and the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring,” she said.
This past Monday in the South Loop, Paul Phillips, the branch chief of customer service for USCIS, wore a mask and gloves as he wiped down plastic chairs and prepared for a citizenship oath ceremony. The agency used to swear in more than 100 citizens at once. Now, the events are limited to 10 to 35 people because of social distancing.
The federal courts in Chicago, which also can conduct naturalization ceremonies, hasn’t scheduled any since the onset of the pandemic.
Presiding over the ceremony, Phillips told the group that typically the events are loud and filled with relatives and friends. But they no longer can. And they now skip over videos about American history.
This ceremony was done in just seven minutes.
After leading the group in repeating the oath of allegiance to the United States, Phillips told the gathering, “Congratulations, you are now United States citizens.”
And everyone started clapping.
Claudia Quintero, 46, of Cary, was among the new citizens. She’d applied in September, hoping to make it easier to apply for graduate school.
“There’s nothing better than to be a citizen of the country where you are living,” said Quintero, who was met after the ceremony by her husband and son.
Pacheco waited eight months to become a citizen. It had taken most of her life to get to that point, in part because she had difficulty paying the required fees. In February, she was told her application was approved. Months passed until she got a letter from the agency — which came in late June, on her 30th birthday — informing her about the ceremony.
“I really have been up in the air as to when that would happen, so getting the letter on my birthday really was a surprise,” Pacheco said.
Kha Doan, 32, drove alone from Champaign to Chicago to take part in the citizenship ceremony. He had applied in March 2019, and his application was approved about a year later, but COVID-19 caused the agency to close.
“I was thinking maybe I wasn’t going to see citizenship until November or maybe 2021,” Doan said.
As the months passed, he got nervous because his green card would soon expire, and he needed it to hold onto his job in the automotive industry.
Now that he’s a citizen, Doan has his sights set on moving to California and seeking new job opportunities.
Edgar Diaz, 43, of Pilsen, is among those still waiting to become a citizen. He submitted his application in February and is waiting for an appointment for an interview and to undergo fingerprinting.
He’s hopeful becoming a citizen will open up opportunities to work for the government.
He said he knows the importance of voting. But he’s unsure whether he will be able to vote this year.
“I would hope so, but the process does look delayed,” Diaz said in Spanish.
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.