Since entering office, President Biden has promised vast changes to US immigration policy, including streamlining the citizenship process for millions. But a growing backlog of naturalization cases is hampering the system and leaving many in limbo.
According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, in fiscal year 2021, there were more than 8 million pending citizenship cases, a 31% increase from fiscal year 2020 and a 40% increase from 2019’s 5.7 million cases.
“We have some cases that wait for two years, and they still can’t get them an interview day yet,” said Margaret Choi, an immigration attorney. “There are some suspicions on the part of the applicants. [They think] the government is the one stopping [them] from becoming a US citizen, and so they get nervous and feel like, 'Maybe, I shouldn’t be a US citizen.'”
Along with the number of cases in the backlog, the time it takes to process immigration documents has increased as well.
According to government data, the median time it has taken to process N-400s, the naturalization application, has increased from 7.9 months in 2017, to nearly a year today. Other documents, like the I-730, which allows a refugee to petition for a relative to join them in the US, has ballooned from 8 months to more than 2 years in the same amount of time.
“I couldn’t realize how time passed so fast,” said Giulia Michieli, an Italian woman who received her US citizenship in January.
Michieli says she was granted permission to pursue her US citizenship in March, before she took her citizenship test in the summer, and then received her US citizenship card in January. Previously, the whole process would take no more than 6 months, according to Choi.
She points to the pandemic and a snowball effect, which have slowed how quickly background checks and interviews can happen when processing applicants.
The backlog means fewer eligible migrants are receiving their citizenship which can affect the electorate. Often, immigrants vote Democrat rather than Republican.
In recent months, the government has been able to process more documents than previously in the pandemic, but the backlog remains.
Choi says there is no clear path to solving the issue. She believes expediting background checks and prioritizing interviews would speed up the system.