Liberate Naturalization Ceremonies!

While many immigrants are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, for thousands, the path to citizenship has been unnecessarily obstructed.
May 22, 2020
Featured Image
Olga Puerta, originally from Colombia, holds an American flag as she joins with other people during a ceremony to become American citizens at a U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services naturalization ceremony in a Miami Field Office on August 16, 2019 in Miami, Florida. The ceremony included 150 citizenship candidates from across the globe. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Immigrants have been playing an essential role in keeping America fed and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, so shouldn’t we be saying thank you by allowing those who are eligible and have gone through all the necessary steps to become citizens?

The naturalization process isn’t easy—indeed, most Americans would likely fail the test administered to naturalization applicants according to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Nonetheless, about 800,000 immigrants each year secure the right to naturalize. But the pandemic has put a halt to the last step in the process: being sworn in as new Americans. Until they take the oath, immigrants are still just residents, not citizens, with none of the rights or obligations citizens undertake. Thousands of immigrants are currently waiting to take the oath after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shut their offices in March. While it is understandable that CIS has put on hold the large swearing-in ceremonies, often presided over by dignitaries from judges to the vice president, the oath could be administered in other ways, as could the penultimate step of personal interviews.

Congress has authorized the attorney general to expedite naturalization if “sufficient cause” exists to dispense with an in-person ceremony. If a pandemic that has killed nearly 100,000 Americans and afflicted more than 1.5 million others is not sufficient cause, I cannot imagine what is. Congress, media, public companies, state and local governments, schools and universities, non-profit organizations, even doctors and private citizens have all adapted to the challenges of maintaining social distance by using technology to bring people together when necessary. So why not allow immigrants awaiting naturalization to complete their interviews and take their oath of citizenship remotely?

By not moving ahead to make the process more accessible, CIS will exacerbate an already scandalous backlog on their books. Some 126,000 persons are waiting to be sworn in, according to the advocacy group Boundless. Unless these individuals can take the oath remotely, they likely will not be sworn in any time soon—which will prevent them from voting in 2020. Given President Trump’s paranoia about the upcoming election, it’s easy to worry that the administration may not be anxious to see so many new voters participating, especially those who may hail from countries the president has denigrated repeatedly.

But this should not be a partisan issue, and some on Capitol Hill are working to ensure it not become one by circulating a Dear Colleague letter to urge CIS to bypass in-person swearing in ceremonies. Rep. John Katko (R-NY), who participated in citizenship ceremonies last year, is reportedly leading the effort on the Republican side of the aisle.

For most of us, even those whose immigrant forebears came generations ago, immigrants are the symbol of what makes America great, as Ronald Reagan noted in a Labor Day speech in 1980. We ought to be welcoming those who have done the hard work to become American—leaving their home, learning a new language, contributing to our economy, adopting the civic values of our great country—not discouraging them from participating fully in our political life.

If the Boundless estimates are correct, continued delays in swearing in new citizens will prevent 2,100 persons each day from naturalization, blocking as many as 441,000 people from being eligible to vote in the November election. It would be a shame to ask immigrants to continue to staff hospitals as doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, deliver necessary goods to businesses and individuals, clean public spaces so that we can return to work, and pick the fruit and vegetables and process the meat and dairy products that feed us—yet refuse those who’ve earned the right to become citizens to do so.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is a former Reagan White House official and director of the Becoming American Initiative.