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How the pandemic has complicated these immigrants’ path to citizenship

The coronavirus pandemic has changed life for almost everyone in the United States. But it has also significantly disrupted the efforts of those seeking to become American citizens -- some of whom are eager to vote in the November election. John Yang reports on how COVID-19 has made the already challenging path to citizenship even more difficult.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The coronavirus pandemic has upended life for almost everyone in the United States. But it has also significantly disrupted the efforts of those looking to become American citizens and who are eager to vote in the November election.

    As John Yang reports, COVID-19 has made the already strenuous path to citizenship in the U.S. even harder.

  • John Yang:

    In Texas, registered nurse Vanessa Solomon is on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus. She was born in Saint Martin in the Caribbean, and came to the United States with her family when she was 11 years old.

    They entered on visitor's visas, and stayed illegally when they expired. She says that wasn't a problem until she was in high school.

  • Vanessa Solomon:

    I wanted to attend college, and that's when I realized that I was pretty much stuck in a situation that I had absolutely no control over.

  • John Yang:

    Solomon married a U.S. citizen and became a permanent resident, a foreign citizen authorized to permanently live and work in the United States.

    Last June, she applied to become a U.S. citizen through a process called naturalization.

  • Vanessa Solomon:

    Once Trump came into office, and all of these immigration issues came around, policies started changing, I realized that I was not as stable as I thought I was.

  • John Yang:

    Her in-person interview and required civics test with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, was scheduled for March. That gave her hope that she would become a citizen in time to register to vote in this fall's election.

    But then the pandemic hit. USCIS closed its offices, and Solomon's application got stuck in a processing backlog of about 700,000 people waiting for their applications to be approved.

    In a statement to the "NewsHour," a USCIS spokesperson wrote: "While it is true that our production may likely be down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also true we believe we will end the fiscal year with approximately 600,000 new citizens."

    That's compared with 834,000 new citizens naturalized last year. Analysts say some 300,000 applicants now in the pipeline won't become citizens in time to vote in November.

    Officials say citizenship applications surge every four years timed to beat voter registration deadlines. That's what led Fernando Valle to apply last November, after taking a free citizenship class at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

    He had come to the United States from his native Mexico in 2005 on a work visa. He became a permanent resident in 2015 after marrying his husband.

  • Fernando Valle:

    Once I knew there was going to come a big election for this year, that was something that made me put the time and prepare the paperwork to complete the application.

  • John Yang:

    When he applied, he was told that the processing time was nine months. That would have given him plenty of time to register to vote.

    But it wasn't until early September that his interview was scheduled. The date? October 23, four days after Pennsylvania's voter registration deadline.

    Is this delay frustrating to you, because, I mean, you have done everything that you should do?

  • Fernando Valle:

    Yes, it's very frustrating, because I have been following all the instructions, all the paperwork, all the timelines that, in this case, the USCIS office indicates. It's heartbreaking to see these delays.

  • Chad Wolf:

    Congratulations. You're now citizens of the United States of America.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • John Yang:

    The Republican National Convention featured President Trump presiding over a White House naturalization ceremony for five new citizens.

  • Shev Dalal-Dheini:

    It was definitely a gimmick, right?

  • John Yang:

    Shev Dalal-Dheini is director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

  • Shev Dalal-Dheini:

    It's a way to say, oh, we care about immigrants, and we do it.

    But while they showed those five individuals getting their naturalization ceremony, it doesn't tell you the story of the hundreds of thousands of people who are still waiting in line. These are all legal immigrants. These are all people who are trying to do it right, trying to do it by the laws that were set forth by Congress, taking every step that they need to take.

  • John Yang:

    Dalal-Dheini says challenges on the path to citizenship would increase with an application fee hike, temporarily blocked by a federal judge, to almost $1,200. That's a jump of more than 80 percent.

  • Shev Dalal-Dheini:

    And so by making the choice to increase naturalization applications so significantly, it truly just says, we don't want you as American citizens.

  • John Yang:

    USCIS says the increase is necessary. In July, the agency, which is funded almost entirely by fees, said current levels would leave it underfunded by about $1 billion per year.

    And, in August, the agency announced unprecedented spending cuts in order to avert big layoffs it had threatened earlier this year, but acknowledged this step "will increase backlogs and wait times across the board, with no guarantee we can avoid future furloughs."

  • Kenneth Palinkas:

    Morale is extremely low.

  • John Yang:

    Longtime naturalization officer Kenneth Palinkas is executive vice president of the union that represents USCIS Employees.

  • Kenneth Palinkas:

    You have no idea how this impending furlough weighed heavily on the workers, their families, their associates, their lives. It was very difficult. We still have the furlough hanging over our heads, too.

  • John Yang:

    Palinkas says he sympathizes with applicants.

  • Kenneth Palinkas:

    They're coming in for the righteous reasons. They do — they want to become U.S. citizens.

  • John Yang:

    Like Vanessa Solomon, the Texas nurse.

  • Vanessa Solomon:

    I have paid my taxes. I have built a life here. And I feel as though I have contributed towards society.

  • John Yang:

    Last month, she got good news. She became a citizen on September 18, in plenty of time to register to vote.

  • Vanessa Solomon:

    That oath of citizenship means that, after all of these years of working hard to prove myself to the system, that I am eligible for rights.

  • John Yang:

    But for Valle and hundreds of thousands of other applicants like him, the wait continues.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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