A Rockier Road to U.S. Citizenship

Findings of a Survey on Changing Naturalization Procedures

Becoming a citizen benefits immigrants and U.S. communities in a variety of ways, including by promoting integration and enabling immigrants to vote and run for public office, sponsor close relatives for immigration, and travel visa free to many countries. Citizens also earn more than noncitizens with similar characteristics, and these higher earnings lead to greater economic activity and higher tax payments.

For the approximately 9 million immigrants eligible to naturalize, however, the hurdles to becoming a U.S. citizen appear to be growing. This report presents the Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of a 2019 national survey conducted by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center of 110 naturalization assistance providers. The study aims to understand how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization procedures have changed during the Trump administration.

USCIS continues to approve the vast majority of citizenship applications, with an approval rate that has hovered around the 90-percent mark since fiscal year 2010, but the time it takes to process an application has grown considerably. This appears to be due at least in part to changing adjudication policies and practices, including those described by the surveyed organizations:

  • About one-quarter of survey respondents reported their clients missed interviews when USCIS sent notices to incorrect addresses, sent them too late, or sent them to the attorney but not the applicant.
  • Interviews had doubled in length, from 20–30 minutes to 45–60 minutes, according to one-quarter of respondents.
  • More than one-third reported USCIS more often issued requests for evidence to support applications, especially for documents related to tax compliance and income, continuous residency and physical presence, marriage and child support, and criminal history.
  • USCIS officers asked detailed questions not directly related to citizenship eligibility, and administered the English and civics tests differently, often more strictly, according to 10 percent of respondents.

These changes were underway before a trio of new 2020 developments that threaten to further increase the application backlog and make it more difficult for eligible immigrants to access citizenship: a COVID-19-related suspension of USCIS operations for three months, the likely furlough of two-thirds of the agency’s staff due to a major budget shortfall, and a planned increase in the cost of filing a citizenship application alongside new restrictions on eligibility for fee waivers for low-income applicants.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Process of Becoming a U.S. Citizen: Trends and Policy Changes
Recent USCIS Changes to Naturalization Processing

3 The Survey of NAC Naturalization Service Providers

4 Survey Findings
A. Obstacles at Different Stages of the Naturalization Process
B. Issues Raised in Interviews or Requests for Evidence
C. Frequency of Naturalization Process Changes across USCIS Field Offices

5 Discussion and Conclusions

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