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Stop putting new citizens through the wringer

Immigrants become U.S. citizens during a ceremony in Miami on Aug. 17. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

By Editorial Board

August 23

GREEN-CARD HOLDERS, also known as lawful permanent U.S. residents, are treated horrendously by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when they apply to become citizens. They have lived legally in the United States for years, and often decades, but their applications, which once took a few months to process, now drag on for nearly two years in some places. In the District, the wait can last up to 17 months; in New York City, it can take 21 months. Nationwide, including places with few immigrants, the average wait is more than 10 months, double the time in 2014 and twice the agency’s own stated goal.

The stupefying waits make a mockery of the agency’s mission statement, which promises to adjudicate applications “efficiently.” Adding insult to injury, applicants — nearly 90 percent of whom are approved and ultimately become U.S. citizens — are compelled to pay $725 in fees for what amounts to appalling service. That’s a hefty bill considering the median family incomeof naturalized citizens is less than $60,000.

As the application fee has climbed in recent years, service has deteriorated and backlogs have soared — a problem the agency’s own ombudsman highlighted two years ago. For most of 2015, the agency had about 380,000 pending applications; today, that backlog has roughly doubled. The agency failed to stay abreast of a spike in applications that began in 2016, during the Obama administration’s final year, when more than 1 million green-card holders decided to seek citizenship.

Compounding the application surge is an array of institutional, structural and technological problems at the agency. The agency, which also handles refugee and asylum applications, is badly underfunded: Fees paid for naturalization, though hefty, don’t cover costs, and Congress has balked at appropriating additional funds.

The Obama administration deepened the problem by doubling the list of questions, and therefore the interview times, required of applicants. The Trump administration made things worse by doubling the workload for immigration officers, requiring them to interview all green-card applicants sponsored by employers, in addition to citizenship applicants; previously, interviews were often waived for employment-based green-card candidates, who are considered low-risk. The result is a chronic personnel shortage even as the agency has gone on a hiring spree, torn down office walls, set up cubicles in hallways and lavished overtime on officers working weekends.

President Trump himself is partly to blame for the spike in applicants seeking citizenship, some of whom worry that green cards alone are inadequate protection from his anti-immigrant policies. (The fear was rational, given confusion on that very point in the early days of the administration’s travel ban.) Naturalization applications soared to nearly 100,000 monthly in the months before and after Mr. Trump took office, approaching historic levels.

Even with the protracted waits, the vast majority of those applicants — many impelled by fear of the president — will have become citizens in time to participate in the 2020 elections, often at flag-waving ceremonies where they are lectured on the importance of voting. For a more rational administration, that might provide an incentive to treat these future citizens with more of the respect they deserve.