Citizenship applications backlog doubles from 2015 to 2020

By: - October 19, 2021 1:30 pm

Six immigrants became U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony on the state House of Representatives floor on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. They were born in American Samoa, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Nepal, Philippines. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

The backlog of applications for eligible immigrants to become U.S. citizens more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, according to a report from a Government Accountability Office that portrays U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as a strained and inefficient agency.

USCIS is tasked with processing and adjudicating immigration benefits, like work visas, green cards, citizenship applications and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals requests. The GAO report found USCIS cited the pandemic, changes in application processes that made the review of cases more time-consuming and insufficient staffing as factors contributing to the increasing caseload.

The total USCIS backlog increased 85% from fiscal years 2015 through 2020, the report found. For Phoenix resident Eleuterio Galindo, 58, it means the application for citizenship he submitted in June 2020 still hasn’t been processed. 

Galindo has lived in the country for more than 40 years and works at an aluminium manufacturing company. He has been a permanent resident and eligible to apply for citizenship  for many years, but chose to keep renovating his green card — until last year. 

“Now it’s time to become a citizen. It’s been many years and it’s necessary,” Galindo said. But after waiting for over 15 months, he’s questioning whether he made the right decision. During that time, his green card expired, he said. 

“This is taking too long, and I need to travel outside of the country,” Galindo said. “I’ve thought of just renewing my green card.”

Galindo’s wait is above the national and Phoenix average for processing naturalization applications. Between October 2020 and September 2021, citizenship applications took an average of 11.5 months to adjudicate, according to USCIS historical processing times table. The wait time for naturalization requests to be processed in Phoenix is between 11 and 14.5 months, according to the USCIS processing times tool

The backlog for naturalization applications recently peaked in March, reaching more than 950,000 pending applications nationwide. Most recent data for June shows a slight decrease to 907,000. 

In Arizona, there were 11,447 people waiting for their citizenship applications to be processed in June, USCIS shows

The backlog is also impacting other immigration applications that USCIS adjudicates. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA, has life-altering benefits for eligible undocumented immigrants who arrived to the country as children. 

For more than two years following the Trump administration’s 2017 announcement that it would phase out DACA, people eligible for the program who wanted to apply for the first time were barred from doing so.  

But after a court ruled that Trump’s government couldn’t end DACA as planned, USCIS announced in December 2020 that it would accept initial DACA applications, opening the door for thousands of immigrants to temporary protection from deportation and a renewable work permit.

That window of opportunity for new applicants to submit the document-heavy DACA form to USCIS abruptly closed in July, when a Texas judge declared the program unlawful. The decision added more distress to a three-year roller coaster of rulings in several lawsuits and legislative back-and-forth that has made uncertainty the only constant among generations of dreamers and their families.

In September, the Biden administration announced a proposed rule change that is expected to keep DACA in place. 

For now, only those who currently have DACA can apply to renew their work permits and receive temporary protection from deportation. 

As of June 30 there are 22,260 residents in Arizona who have DACA, according to USCIS data.  

USCIS ended fiscal year 2021 with 82,621 pending applications for first-time applicants, according to its data. For those seeking to renew, there were about 84,413 pending applications as of June 30. (The GAO review didn’t include DACA applications.)

Michale Browder is among those nearly 83,000 people nationwide who had hoped to obtain DACA but were cut off by the long backlog and court ruling. 

“Everything stopped before I got approved. It’s horrible, it’s bad,” he said. “I’m very lucky and blessed to have a job, but I know a lot of people don’t have the same opportunity that I do — maybe they can’t even go to school and stuff, they don’t have a way to get a job or anything, or  a drivers license.”

Browder applied for DACA in December 2020. He got an approval letter, and went to get his fingerprints taken, which is the last requirement before DACA is granted. A few weeks later, the Texas judge ended the program. 

Arizona groups that have been key in the advocacy movement to push Congress to pass permanent reform to provide a pathway to citizenship to dreamers and their families are continuing to put pressure on the Biden administration and senators to secure these changes before the end of the year.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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