Wait times for Colorado immigrants applying for citizenship are at near-unprecedented highs, stretching past 20 months in some cases, according to a new report by the Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
More than 7,600 legal residents — nearly all from Colorado, but some from Wyoming — are now waiting for their citizenship applications to be approved by the Denver Field Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as of their last report from March 31.
The average wait time in Colorado has nearly doubled, from 5.6 months in 2016, to a little over 10 months in March of this year.
Long waits have become common across the nation. Averages vary from 10 months to three years, despite federal law mandating that USCIS process applications in six months. These long wait times are contributing to a national backlog of more than 700,000 applications, according to the Sept. 12 report.
Ming Hsu Chen, who sits on the Colorado Advisory Committee and was the project director of the report, said Colorado is among the states with the highest wait times, ranking 15th in backlog size at the beginning of 2018. The delay in processing, Chen says, infringes on the civil rights of the would-be citizens.
“Voting rights and employment and other kinds of public benefits, those are among the kinds of things that are being delayed,” said Chen, an associate professor of law at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Wait times at the Denver office now are hitting nearly two years in some cases and that means people who hoped to vote in 2020 may not become citizens in time.
Among the reasons contributing to the longer-than-usual wait times: a spike in applications following the 2016 election, greater scrutiny by the federal agency that approves citizen applications, and understaffing in that agency.
Citizenship applications usually surge before presidential election years because of immigrants’ desire to vote, Chen said. The rate typically returns to normal soon after the cycle ends, but, during this administration, she said, that didn’t happen. The total number of applications ballooned by more than 200,000 from 2015 to 2017, from 783,062 to 986,851.
One reason for the leap in applications, she said, is fear among immigrants of being denied or losing their lawful residency status as barriers to citizenship are added. Lawful permanent residents do not enjoy the same protections against deportation as citizens and new USCIS guidelines say that any immigrant found to be defrauding or misrepresenting themselves to a federal agency can be deported.
In most cases, green card holders who file naturalization applications must prove five years of continuous U.S. residence, a basic understanding of American history and government, good moral character — which is determined on a case-by-case basis — and a basic knowledge of English. Screening measures were made stricter by an executive order President Trump issued in January 2017.
According to the most recent data from the Migration Policy Institute, by far the largest share of applicants nationally in 2017 was from Mexico at 17%. The next largest share was India at 7%, then China and the Philippines at 5%, and then the Dominican Republic and Cuba, both at 4%.
California, New York, Florida and Texas received more than half of all applications in 2017, with California receiving twice what the next closest state did, the MPI found.
Lawful permanent residents are not required to become citizens, but the percent who do so has been rising. In 1995, it was just 47%. In 2015, it was 67%, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center. Chen said the rate continues to rise during the Trump administration.
In a February survey of Colorado immigration lawyers by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, 17 of the 22 attorneys who responded said that delays in their clients’ applications were due to stricter scrutiny by the USCIS of any criminal history.
The report reinforces that anecdotal evidence, saying that yet another factor in the delay is the diversion of funds away from application processing to fraud detection and other immigration-enforcement functions.
But USCIS Spokeswoman Jessica Collins pointed to higher application rates — rather than slow processing times — for the longer waits. She said the agency has hired more staff, added to its facilities and reformed some of its operations to deal with the recent surge in applications.
Naturalization cases aren’t the only significant backlog with which USCIS is grappling. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the Associated Press in September that the number of asylum cases currently sitting in the queue has hit 335,000. Cuccinelli said that a recent Supreme Court ruling, which dramatically restricts the number of eligible asylum seekers coming from Central America, will reduce that backlog specifically.
The Colorado Advisory Committee recommended that Congress increase funding to USCIS, while maintaining oversight over allocation and spending. The committee also urged Congress to hold USCIS to its mandated six-month processing time.