Naturalizing as a U.S. citizen confers a multitude of benefits, but chief among these benefits for many people is the ability to vote in federal elections, including the U.S. presidential election. Unfortunately, with the 2020 election just a few months away, hundreds of thousands of would-be citizens may not be naturalized in time to register to vote due to a backlog created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The main event of the naturalization process is an interview with a government officer and English language and U.S. history and civics tests. Once an immigrant passes the tests and successfully completes the interview, they are approved for citizenship. A final step before officially becoming a U.S. citizen, however, is attending an oath ceremony, an event where immigrants officially take the oath of allegiance to the United States. These ceremonies are generally a formality and usually occur within a few weeks of successfully completing the naturalization interview and tests. But they are often large, in-person events where family and friends are invited to witness and celebrate the occasion.
COVID-19 and required social distancing guidelines have made these types of events almost impossible. Indeed, USCIS has canceled nearly all oath ceremonies since March. These cancellations have created a backlog of hundreds of thousands of green card holders waiting to take the oath and become citizens.
Since reopening certain in-person offices and services on June 4, USCIS has begun conducting small, outdoor, socially-distanced oath ceremonies, but many feel that these will not be nearly enough to work through the backlog that has been created by months of canceled ceremonies. There have been calls for USCIS to allow for remote oath ceremonies, and at least one lawsuit has been filed to try to force USCIS to schedule the ceremonies necessary for all those eligible to become citizens in time to register to vote in the upcoming November election.
Federal law generally requires a public, in-person oath ceremony, which makes remote or virtual ceremonies tricky. The law does allow for an expedited ceremony by a judge or administrative naturalization for “sufficient cause,” but so far USCIS has been unwilling to explore these options to ensure immigrants are sworn in prior to voter registration deadlines. We hope that USCIS will do everything within its power to address the backlog, and ensure that the thousands of would-be citizens that remain disenfranchised are able to make their voices heard in the 2020 election.