Gabriel came to the United States the long way: He was born in Cuba, lived in Spain, and then Israel. In 2013, he immigrated to New York, where he successfully applied for a green card. By 2018, Gabriel made the choice to become a U.S. citizen, and he and his wife applied for naturalization. The process all went smoothly at first. Gabriel got a date for his interview and sorted out his paperwork. But the process of becoming a citizen is still long and tedious, and he got an estimated naturalization date for March 2020. Gabriel didn’t mind that wait: It would mean he and his wife would be able to vote in both the presidential primaries and general election. “At that time we for sure believed we would be voting in the elections, something very important for us in the moral sense,” Gabriel told Prism. (He requested we use a pseudonym so he could speak freely about his political preference and immigration status).
Then 2020 happened. In the middle of primary season, as the pandemic hit the country full force, Gabriel got a notification that his citizenship interview had been canceled. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) didn’t give him another date. For months, there was radio silence, until, in September, the agency sent him a letter telling him to prepare for an interview just six days later; afterwards, the agency let him know his application would take another 17 to 34 months. There would be no voting in November.
“Not being able to vote is adding a lot of anxiety in my daily life,” Gabriel says. “I’m truly worried about four years more of Donald Trump.”
Gabriel is not alone. As many 300,000 would-be citizens will be unable to vote in the November election, simply because USCIS has fallen so far behind on their naturalization applications. The major delays in the citizenship process could have a serious effect on elections across the country. And some experts are worried that’s no accident.
“I am worried about this being voter suppression,” said Eric Cohen, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
Cohen’s organization, the ILRC, provides legal aid to immigrants and asylum-seekers. In March, when the USCIS announced a complete halt of naturalization work—and essentially sent most of its staff home—Cohen and his team immediately began to worry about the effect of the delays on voting. The ability to vote is one of the primary reasons immigrants want to become citizens, and as a result, citizenship applications have historically skyrocketed during presidential election years, Cohen told Prism. To try and understand what was happening—and why it was happening—the ILRC launched an investigation of USCIS’s delays. Their report, released earlier this month, runs under a damning title: “Denying the Right to Vote: Politicization of the Naturalization Process as a Novel Form of Voter Suppression.”
While Gabriel noted that his citizenship interviews included some uncomfortable political overtones, Cohen says it’s unlikely that individual USCIS employees are delaying peoples’ applications in order to stop them from voting. Instead, he says that major policy decisions from higher up in the Trump administration have made the immigration process take much, much longer.
As Cohen explained, under Trump the USCIS has adopted a strongly anti-immigrant stance. Where once the USCIS was essentially a “benefit granting agency,” it has re-interpreted its mission under Trump as “super extreme vetting” of would-be citizens. Led by the vocally anti-immigrant Trump appointee Ken Cuccinelli—who serves as acting director, and has never been confirmed by Congress—USCIS has spent an unprecedented amount of resources investigating fraud in citizenship cases. While very little fraud has been found, Cohen says the effect of super vetting has “thrown sand into the gears” of the citizenship process. Normally simple parts of the process—like the formal interview—now take three to four times longer. And during the pandemic-era election year, it’s gotten exponentially worse.
In late March, USCIS closed down for over a month. Cohen says he has a lot of sympathy for the agency having to deal with such an unprecedented crisis. But as time went on and many people either went back into essential jobs or figured out remote work, Cohen’s patience for the agency wore a bit thin. “My wife teaches high school, and she was working remotely almost immediately,” Cohen says. “Why couldn’t USCIS change interviews and other appointments to virtual?”
Now, the effects of USCIS’s shutdown, combined with the new Trumpian bureaucratic barriers, have deprived hundreds of thousands the right to vote.
The ILRC report found that USCIS delays could have a major effect on the election in critical swing states. Using survey data, the report found that in places like Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas, immigrants are especially motivated to vote. In fact, in Florida and North Carolina—two states that could be the tipping point for Trump or Biden in 2020—a majority of immigrants surveyed said their primary reason for applying to citizenship is so that they could vote. Florida is also one of the states most impacted by naturalization delays: Over 36,000 would-be citizens won’t be able to vote, in a state that Trump carried by less than 113,000 votes in 2016.
It’s actually unclear in what direction a suppressed immigrant vote could tilt an election. Immigrants are in no way a monolith, and many new citizens vote for both Republicans and Democrats, as well as other parties. That’s part of why, in the past, presidential administrations have gone out of their way to support increased naturalization during the presidential election. Both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush increased funding and support for the citizenship process during election years.
However, many of Trump’s policies on immigration could alienate new citizen voters: The president has repeatedly railed against new citizens’ family members—their parents, children, or spouses—also getting citizenship status, denigrating it as “chain migration” even though his own parents-in-law became U.S. citizens through the same family migration process. Trump has also nearly doubled the fees involved in the citizenship process, making it significantly harder for low-income immigrants to get naturalized.
Many new citizens (and would-be new citizens) are people of color in communities alienated by Trump’s dog whistle and often openly racist rhetoric. Right now, most naturalized citizens are Latinx or Asian, and the two largest groups hail from Mexico and the Philippines, according to the Pew Research Center.
Even with the USCIS delays in the past year, the immigrant vote in 2020 could be historic. This year, a record number of immigrants—over 23 million people—are eligible to vote, according to Pew (The vast majority of these people were naturalized before 2020).
Cohen readily admits that there’s no “smoking gun,” that indicates the Trump administration is purposely delaying the citizenship process in order to suppress the naturalized citizen vote. However, he believes that, at the end of the day, the outcome is the same: Hundreds of thousands of people who wanted to vote in this election will be unable to go to the polls.
“Whether or not it’s purposeful, the outcome is voter suppression,” Cohen says.