Abraham Carlos Buitron really wants to vote, especially in this year’s presidential election.
“I want to vote for president, governor, aldermen,” Buitron said.
His parents brought him to Chicago when he was six years old. He went to school here. He’s married and has two children. He works and pays taxes but can’t vote.
“I wanted to become a U.S. citizen mainly because of all the politics going on and them wanting to get rid of Mexicans,” he said. “I want to be able to vote for whomever I want.”
He applied for citizenship in November 2019. He was scheduled to take the citizenship test in April, but the Chicago office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was closed at that time. USCIS, which oversees the naturalization process, temporarily closed its offices nationwide on March 18 due to COVID-19.
Buitron said he hoped to become a citizen by Election Day this year. But USCIS has yet to reschedule his test.
USCIS reopened on June 4, with limited in-person services. Within the time that the agency had been closed, oath ceremonies for about 110,000 immigrants were delayed. The oath ceremony is the final step in the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen, and it must be done in person, according to federal law. Officials with USCIS said all of those immigrants have now been naturalized.
But immigration advocates say the delays in citizenship services started before the pandemic and are keeping immigrants who want to vote in November away from the ballot box.
“USCIS is being weaponized,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). “This is a concerted effort by this administration to deter people from applying for citizenship, or once they’ve applied, to block their path to become citizens.”
Immigration advocates say that it has become more difficult for immigrants to become U.S. citizens under President Donald Trump because they face greater scrutiny during the naturalization process. In February, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the creation of a new office to investigate possible fraud and to strip immigrants of their citizenship.
Under the Trump administration, immigrants have had to wait twice as long to go through the naturalization process, according to The New York Times. By April 2020, the backlog was so severe that over half a million applications were still pending.
Efforts to root out fraud “are pretty much being woven into all processing of the applications, which help explain and rationalize the delays we are seeing,” Tsao said.
Tsao said those changes aren’t the only ones slowing down the naturalization process.
In May, USCIS told Congress it was struggling financially. The agency has increased the fee to become a citizen by $530. In October, it will cost $1,170 to apply to become a citizen. And the fee waivers for low-income immigrants are not available.
This will impact thousands of immigrants in Illinois who are currently eligible to become citizens, Tsao said. ICIRR runs the New Americans program helping immigrants become citizens, and the nonprofit is challenging the fee increase in federal court. ICIRR and other organizations have filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the fee increase from going into effect Oct. 2.
Now that USCIS has resumed oath ceremonies, they look very different. In order to keep everyone safe during the pandemic, the agency is organizing between two to three smaller ceremonies per day.
During one of the ceremonies in Chicago last Thursday, 45 new Americans took the oath and completed their journeys to become U.S. citizens. Everyone wore a mask and sat in chairs 6 feet apart from one another. Instead of the usual hour-long celebration, the ceremony lasted only 15 minutes, just enough time to recite the oath. USCIS staff couldn’t distribute the naturalization certificates with the usual smiles and handshakes. The new citizens couldn’t take photos on stage near the American flag, like they usually do. And family members were not allowed.
Wadad Elaly, 20, became a citizen at that ceremony. She was sad her family couldn’t be there.
“It’s very difficult to be by yourself on this meaningful day,” she said.
Elaly said her oath ceremony was delayed but only for two weeks. She still has time to register to vote for the presidential election.
“I was very scared, but now I still have time to vote,” the college student said.
Elaly said being able to vote is important to her. She fled Syria as the civil war there destroyed parts of her native country. She was 15 when she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee. Chicago is her new home. And now that she’s able to register to vote, she said, she wants to show Americans that Muslims contribute a lot to this country.
“I want to represent Syrians. We are here to help America,” she said. “Now, I am an American, and I can do a lot.”
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.