Pandemic-Related Consequences Prolong the Paths to Citizenship
In the best of circumstances with no complications, it can take well over a year to move through the final steps of becoming a United States citizen. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is notorious for lengthy processing times for naturalization applications, and you will have to go undergo several procedural hurdles before taking the Oath of Allegiance. If the agency encounters any potential problems or inconsistencies in your application, you could face months of delays, or even be forced to restart from the beginning.
That was before the COVID-19 pandemic transformed how we live our lives. Now, consequences of COVID-19 have dramatically shifted the ability of USCIS to efficiently, effectively, and safely, process applications, facilitate interviews, and conduct naturalization ceremonies. Consequently, the process of becoming a U.S. citizen has evolved to adapt with the realities of the pandemic. Below, we discuss some of the major changes you should expect if you are preparing to apply for naturalization.
Possibility of USCIS Furloughs and Resulting Delays
USCIS offices temporarily closed, halting a grand majority of its in-person operations, on March 18, 2020. The reopening process did not begin until June 4 of this year, resulting in a massive, multi-month backlog of cases.
Simultaneously, the plummeting of immigration fees resulted in a budgetary crisis for the agency. No new immigration applications meant no new revenue, leading to an unprecedented shortfall. USCIS announced in late May that they would likely need to furlough up to 70% of the agency’s workforce – more than 13,000 employees – which would in effect stop all legal immigration proceedings from meaningfully progressing. Agency leadership requested Congress provide an emergency infusion to keep USCIS afloat, but partisan gridlock kept the federal aid from materializing.
After several delays, USCIS ultimately announced it would avert its planned furloughs. It also stated it would be able to maintain operations through the end of the 2020 fiscal year. However, severe spending cuts were required to accomplish this, meaning nearly all agency operations, including naturalizations will be impacted in the immediate future.
The main takeaway is that USCIS is now facing an additional backlog as a result of its office closures as well as reduced efficacy due to spending cuts. As a result, processing times for each step of the naturalization process will dramatically increase for the foreseeable future.
Modifications for Meeting with Legal Representation
Becoming a U.S. citizen is an intensive immigration process that requires a thorough understanding of the relevant laws and procedures. While you can in theory pursue citizenship on your own, it is recommended you seek an experienced immigration lawyer to assist you through each stage of the process.
All businesses currently operating in the midst of the pandemic are doing so under modified operations recommended by local, state, and federal guidance. This includes legal services. While law offices are permitted to operate with enhanced safety measures, you may experience an emphasis on over-the-phone or videoconferencing meetings. Reducing unnecessary in-person visits to an office can help avoid unnecessary risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Our attorneys can walk you through our COVID-19 enhanced safety measures. We can also discuss how to make you feel the most comfortable when visiting any of our several offices.
Submitting Form N-400
Once you meet all eligibility requirements for citizenship, including clearing the mandatory waiting period after receiving your green card, you will need to complete Form N-400, the Application for Naturalization. This initial phase of the citizenship process is not especially impacted by COVID-19, as the necessary documentation can be assembled remotely. It is worth noting that you should include the relevant additional forms if you intend to request your legal representative, interpreter, or individual assisting those with a disability be present with you for the eventual USCIS interview.
COVID-19 delays make it especially important to fill out Form N-400 carefully and accurately. Remember, USCIS is operating at reduced efficacy and with a tremendous backlog of applications, so processing will take significantly longer than normal. Errors, mistakes, or omissions can lead to a swift rejection from USCIS as they struggle to manage application volume. If your application is rejected, you will be forced to restart the process from the beginning, which includes paying new filing fees.
Delays for Biometrics
Typically, a naturalization applicant would hear from USCIS within a month or so after filing Form N-400 to schedule a biometrics appointment. This simply refers to the process of taking identification photos and fingerprints.
Biometrics operations were suspended along with other USCIS in-person services. These appointments have since resumed, but at limited physical locations and with reduced capacities. As a result, you should expect a longer wait before you are summoned for your biometrics appointment.
Changes to the USCIS Interview
Prospective citizens generally face the longest wait between the biometrics appointment and the notice for their USCIS interview. Prior to COVID-19, many experienced an average wait of 14 months. Now, pandemic-related backlogs and reduced capacity have caused wait times to balloon.
Once you do get your interview scheduled, you will need to prepare for changed operations at your USCIS field office. All open offices have instituted strict COVID-19 mitigating policies you will be expected to follow.
COVID-19-related rules for entering a USCIS field office include:
- You must wear a face covering or mask over your face and nose at all times once inside the facility. Masks with exhaust valves, gaiters, and bandanas are not allowed. Your appointment may be rescheduled if you appear without a sufficient face covering.
- You may not enter the facility if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or have recently been exposed to someone confirmed to have the virus. Symptoms include cough, fever, loss of smell and taste, fever, and fatigue. Exposure to someone with COVID-19 means you are expected to quarantine for 14 days, meaning you may not enter the facility during this window. You may also not enter if you are presently awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.
- You must follow social distancing rules within the facility. Each USCIS facility will have markings, barriers, and signs throughout the facility. You will be expected to follow their instructions as well as those of facility staff members.
- You will likely be required to undergo a health screening before entering the facility. This may include a temperature check, examination of your face covering’s fit, and application of hand sanitizer.
- You are encouraged to bring your own black or blue pen. Some USCIS facilities may be able to accommodate you if you forget to bring your own pen for the citizenship exam, but to be safe, bring a few spares.
- You are not able to enter the facility more than 15 minutes before your interview. To reduce congregating in facility waiting areas, you will be expected to only enter when your appointment is imminent.
- Only your approved parties may join you at the facility. To reduce crowding, only participants in your interview will be permitted to join you at the field office. This includes your legal representation, an interpreter, a parent or guardian to a minor child, an individual assisting a disabled person, or immediate relatives listed as dependents. All of these individuals will need to be preapproved prior to your interview.
The actual substance of the interview and naturalization exam has not changed as a result of COVID-19. The USCIS agent will still ask the same sorts of questions about your application and conduct the civics and English proficiency tests.
Previously, needing to reschedule a USCIS interview multiple times could potentially result in the rejection of your application. This policy has been waived in light of COVID-19: There is presently no penalty for rescheduling your interview should you feel ill or become exposed to the virus.
Changes to Naturalization Ceremonies
If you pass your naturalization exam and the USCIS agent is satisfied with your interview, you will be cleared for taking part in a naturalization ceremony, the final stage of the citizenship process. Like other in-person services, these ceremonies were not conducted through early June, leaving a backlog of prospective citizens otherwise ready to take the Oath of Allegiance. This was despite requests from immigration advocates to consider virtual naturalization ceremonies to avoid further delays.
Naturalization ceremonies have largely resumed throughout the country with significant, COVID-19-mitigating changes in place. For example, efforts have been made to make the ceremonies as relatively brief as possible. Before the pandemic, ceremonies typically included one or more speakers and the playing of several patriotic videos. These more extraneous elements have been excised; videos that would have been shown at the ceremonies are now sent as web links to new citizens.
There is also an effort to conduct naturalization ceremonies outside, where possible. Our current understanding of COVID-19 indicates transmission is less likely outdoors. If your ceremony is taking place at a USCIS field office, all of the rules for entering the facility still apply. The only chance is you will be permitted to enter the office 30 minutes early instead of 15.
You will be expected to wear masks or face coverings throughout the ceremony, even if it is taking place outdoors. You also will not be permitted to bring anyone with you to the ceremony. The only exception is for persons who need assistance with a disability.
Ordinarily, a naturalization ceremony might include hundreds or even thousands of new citizens. In light of COVID-19, the number of individuals gathered at any one time is greatly reduced, leading to smaller, distanced ceremonies. While this helps protect participants from viral transmission, it has the consequence of increasing the time they will likely have to wait to get their ceremony scheduled.
We Can Help You Navigate Citizenship During COVID-19
Moving through naturalization can be a costly and consuming process outside of a pandemic. During COVID-19, modifications to USCIS procedures can make becoming a citizen even more challenging. Our immigration attorneys at Gambacorta Law have decades of combined legal experience and are prepared to guide you through the changes in naturalization due to COVID-19. We can help prepare you for each stage of the process and do everything possible to make the already-lengthy journey as efficient as possible.
Schedule a comprehensive consultation to learn more about how we can help you become a U.S. citizen. Call (847) 443-9303 or contact us online to get started.