WASHINGTON – By this Saturday, the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State must develop a plan to improve the naturalization process, as required by an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on Feb. 2. As the April 3 deadline approaches, immigrant advocates across the nation are reiterating calls for several practical measures recommended in a letter in mid-March.
The plan aims to identify opportunities to decrease processing delays, make the application fee more affordable, expand access to fee waivers, and scrutinize the use of denaturalization. Under the Trump administration, the naturalization backlog skyrocketed to just under 1 million applicants, more than doubling from 388,000 applicants in 2016. Furthermore the previous administration increased fees and limited access to fee waivers, among other policies that disproportionately impacted immigrants of color and low-income and working-class immigrants.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), a leading national coalition of 41 immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations, offered detailed recommendations based on our members’ experience on the ground. The suggestions include lifting barriers to prospective applicants and encourage more people to apply; rescinding policies and practices that needlessly prolong the adjudication process; reversing extreme policy guidance on inadmissibility; ensuring that applicants approved for naturalization can be sworn in promptly and also register to vote; halting denaturalization initiatives as well as the diversion from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to enforcement efforts; and changing the culture of USCIS to focus on facilitating naturalization and immigrant integration.
“As the country is trying to get out of the economic recession, naturalization and the economic benefits that come with it will be an integral part of the economic recovery,” said Nicole Melaku, executive director of NPNA. “We look forward to seeing the Biden administration reverse harmful policies but hope to see new, positive initiatives as well. In particular, we urge USCIS to take proactive steps to encourage citizenship, naturalize two million new citizens by the end of 2022, and implement voluntary, automatic voter registration for all newly naturalized citizens.”
NPNA has long called for removing barriers to naturalization, recognizing that citizenship is in our national interest, contributes to shared prosperity and increased economic opportunities, and makes America a more diverse and democratic nation. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout, naturalization and related economic benefits are powerful economic recovery tools.
NPNA is also urging the Biden administration to work with Congress to pass the New Deal for New Americans Act. The legislation would set the naturalization application fee to $50, protect fee waivers, prohibit application fees from being used for enforcement activities, limit USCIS’ ability to arbitrarily hike fees, and create a series of programs and campaigns to encourage naturalization among the millions of eligible immigrants. Several provisions of the bill were included in the White House’s comprehensive immigration bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act. Text of the New Deal for New Americans Act can be found here, and a one-page summary of the legislation is available here.