HIAS PA: Regulations, Delays Could Prevent Thousands From Voting

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Immigrants swear an oath of allegiance to the United States during a naturalization ceremony at the College of DuPage in Illinois in 2015. | Photo by COD Newsroom licensed under CC-BY-2.0

Processing delays and rising fees will prevent thousands of eligible immigrants from voting in the 2020 general election, HIAS Pennsylvania said during a Sept. 16 Facebook Live event.

“We have seen a steady and increasing amount of disenfranchisement that’s happening on a massive scale. People who are eligible to naturalize are paying taxes,” Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson said. “But they are not allowed to vote because of the changes in regulations that have caused enormous delays and have resulted in people not being able to get their petitions processed or their oath ceremonies take place in time.”

Miller-Wilson hosted “Citizenship Delayed: Naturalization and Voting for New Immigrants” with two staff members. Symbol Lai, deputy director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, also joined to provide information about voting.


Lori Alexander, director of HIAS PA’s Citizenship and Family Reunification Program, said that since only United States citizens can vote, the backlogs of citizenship applications means many immigrants will not be naturalized in time to meet registration deadlines and cast a ballot in November.

To apply for citizenship, immigrants must be 18 years of age or older and have lawful permanent resident status, or a green card, for at least five years (three if married to an American citizen). They must also demonstrate they have abided by the country’s laws during their residence.

She explained that immigrants who meet the requirements must file an application, which can take months to be approved.

They also must demonstrate their proficiency in basic English and civics during a naturalization interview and test. They officially become citizens during a naturalization ceremony when they swear their allegiance to the U.S., which typically takes place two months after the interview. They can register to vote as soon as the ceremony is completed, but not before.

This means that even those who meet every citizenship requirement and pass their interviews cannot vote if their ceremony is delayed, as many have been due to the pandemic.
Alexander said the average processing time for citizenship applications in Philadelphia was seven to eight months before the coronavirus shutdowns. Now, they may take 12-20 months.

Mary Clark, HIAS PA’s Philadelphia Citizenship Action Network Coordinator, added that increased wait times were already a problem before the pandemic due to funding issues and policy changes. In fiscal year 2016, processing times were 5½ months on average.

Clark said that the Department of Homeland Security claimed to be on track to naturalize 600,000 individuals in fiscal 2020, which ends in September.

“So to give you sort of a contrast, in fiscal year 2019, they naturalized over 800,000 individuals. And this year, which is an election year and we assume that more applications were probably submitted, over 200,000 less individuals are expected to be naturalized,” Clark said.

She said that in addition to facing formidable bureaucracies, the coming weeks will bring new financial obstacles to immigrants trying to become citizens.

It costs $725 to apply for U.S. citizenship, and fee waivers are available for those whose household income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty level.

There is also the reduced fee waiver option, where applicants are eligible to pay $405 instead of the full application fee if they can demonstrate that their household income is below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Beginning Oct. 2, citizenship application fees will rise to $1,170, and fee waivers will be eliminated for many applicants.

Lai recommended first-time immigrant voters who have managed to be naturalized in time consult the City of Philadelphia’s mail-in ballot guide, which is available online and has been translated into several languages. It also has information about important registration and voting deadlines.

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