Naturalization applications spike in Utah despite longer wait times

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Data from United States Citizen and Immigration Services revealed a growing number of naturalization applicants and longer wait times for processing individual cases. (Haley Mosher)

Utah continues to experience an increase in naturalization applications, and wait times for citizenship approval are similarly rising. Some applicants have now waited more than a year without any application decision.

The Utah Field Office of the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, which processes naturalization applications, experienced an 86 percent increase in applications from October 2014 to the end of March 2017.

Yet the number of applicants who are approved to become naturalized citizens has steadily decreased since the end of June 2016, with the number of denied applications remaining relatively constant, according to statistics released by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The result is a growing number of “pending”  applications for naturalization in Utah, up more than 90 percent from 2,194 in September 2016 to 4,205 in June 2017.

Pending applications are common, since the national goal for Citizenship and Immigration Services’ application processing is about five to seven months. But, with a recent increase in applicants, the waiting time has increased to 8.6 months as of March 2017, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services Public Affairs Officer Debbie Cannon.

Longer pending times require applicants to forgo the benefits of naturalization for increasingly longer periods of time. Without naturalized status, individuals may find themselves unable to vote, help other family members obtain citizenship or obtain a federal job.

This increase in pending cases is not unique to Utah; urban centers across the nation have reported similar trends. Immigration hubs like San Francisco, New York City and Houston have all experienced sharp increases in the number of pending naturalization cases in the past year.

Immigration attorneys are able to help applicants navigate the complexities of naturalization. However, local attorneys have also taken notice of increased wait times as their clients’ cases are often left pending.

Utah attorney Kim Buhler-Thomas described the experiences of a client who first applied for naturalized citizenship in June 2016. Buhler-Thomas saw no reason why this client would not receive naturalized status, but the client’s case is still pending after more than a year.

Buhler-Thomas said the same thing has happened with other clients, and wait times are extending beyond the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ goal.

There has been speculation as to why cases are taking longer to process, and many who represent naturalization applicants are growing frustrated. Local attorneys said possible reasons for delays include Citizenship and Immigration Services’ switch to a paperless system, increased waiting times for background checks and the upsurge in permanent residents who filed for naturalization last year because they wanted to be able to vote as U.S. citizens.

However, increased waiting times are not the only issue applicants and attorneys face.

“The larger issue we are seeing is the local office’s unwillingness to approve easily approvable cases,” said Catholic Community Services immigration attorney Emily McKenzie. “Now all cases have to be reviewed by a supervisor, and that is causing unnecessary delay when the officers used to be able to approve the case the same day.”

Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledges the increased wait times and is recruiting to fill organizational vacancies while simultaneously offering additional employee overtime.

“In areas where backlogs exist — where applications are outside of the processing time — we will continue efforts to shift resources to ensure applications are processed timely,” Cannon said. “We remain committed to adjudicating naturalization applications within our state processing times goals.”

The recently proposed immigration reform bill supported by President Donald Trump would reduce legal immigration, but the bill is more directly tied to those seeking green cards. It could, however, also have an effect on those who have become naturalized citizens. Under the proposed system, naturalized citizens would face greater difficulties in bringing over members of their family because each family member would be subject to the new point-based system.

The bill has yet to be approved by Congress.