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Hundreds Of Thousands Of Immigrants May Miss Out On Voting Amid Naturalization Delays

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The federal agency in charge of naturalizing new citizens is being hit with budget shortfalls, paralyzing backlogs and possible furloughs. With less than three months before the presidential election, all of this is affecting who will be able to vote in November. Shannon Dooling of member station WBUR reports that hundreds of thousands of immigrants are watching their dream of casting a ballot this year slip away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We filled out your form. I think we have all the information that we need.

SHANNON DOOLING, BYLINE: A staff member with Boston-based Project Citizenship is consulting with 36-year-old Engels Olivero over the phone, talking through the final steps of his naturalization application.

ENGELS OLIVERO: All right. Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

DOOLING: Olivero was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. He's had his green card for eight years and applied for citizenship this year, hoping he'd be able to vote in November.

OLIVERO: But I was expecting to get the right to vote. But the timeline is not that good for that, so it's not going to be possible.

DOOLING: The process to become a naturalized U.S. citizen takes about 10 months. That wait time has nearly doubled since 2016. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is facing a backlog and budget crisis. The agency is in charge of processing things like visas, green cards, marriage petitions and citizenship applications.

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DOUG RAND: USCIS has created a naturalization crisis.

DOOLING: That's Doug Rand, an immigration expert and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. He recently testified before Congress. By Rand's analysis, there are more than 300,000 people who in years past would be naturalized in time to vote but will almost certainly miss out this year.

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RAND: These aspiring Americans are young and old, Republicans and Democrats, living all across the country - would normally be eligible to vote this November but still haven't had their interviews yet.

DOOLING: Many of these would-be voters live in swing states. Forty thousand are in Florida and close to 8,000 in Pennsylvania, according to Rand. The administration cites the shutdown caused by the pandemic and more intensive vetting to root out fraud as reasons for the uptick in wait times. But Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, has a different theory.

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SHARVARI DALAL-DHEINI: It's not about security. It's about deterring people from becoming American citizens.

DOOLING: Dalal-Dheini also testified before Congress, arguing this is a strategic effort by the Trump administration to dismantle the legal immigration process.

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DALAL-DHEINI: If you look at the policies that have been enacted, they deliberately decrease USCIS efficiency, slow down case processing and discourage individuals from applying. And although the claims are that it's for fraud detection or to weed out frivolous applications, there hasn't been evidence to that.

DOOLING: The pandemic did shut down many USCIS operations, including naturalization ceremonies, for nearly three months. The agency has resumed smaller, socially distanced ceremonies, and about 110,000 new citizens have been naturalized in time to vote. But there's still a huge backlog. And last month, nearly 70% of the agency's workforce received furlough notices. Because there are fewer immigrants applying for legal status and the agency relies on those fees, it has a $1.2 billion shortfall. That will increase everyone's wait times, says Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

SARAH PIERCE: A furlough of the majority of USCIS's staff would only add to that, so it would really slow the immigration system to a grinding halt.

DOOLING: Without additional funding, the agency says the furloughs will go into effect at the end of the month. And if that happens, there will be fewer eligible voters come November.

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Dooling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.