We must not close the door to new American citizens

via The Hill

2/5/19 In the time between announcing his candidacy and becoming president, Donald Trump insisted that he supported legal immigration. Back in 2015, while promoting his plan to erect a concrete barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump described his vision of a wall with “a big, fat, beautiful open door.”

I come from a data background. My job isn’t to make value judgments. It’s to figure out where the bottlenecks exist in a system, if processes work the way they’re supposed to — whether, as the president would have it, our immigration system has an open door. And, when it comes to legal immigration, the data is clear: Legal immigration has become far more difficult over the past two years.

Current processing times for most visa and green card applications — even for victims of human trafficking — have skyrocketed, with some applicants waiting up to eight times longer than in 2014. Denial rates have gone up across the board, as well. Most concerning, it’s also becoming harder for long-term legal residents in this country to make it through the process of naturalization to become new U.S. citizens.

That open door is closing.

Full disclosure: I am CEO and cofounder of a technology company that helps immigrants naturalize. I have a vested interest in a functioning legal immigration system. But so does America.

To understand just how difficult the citizenship process has become, we synthesized multiple government data sets and ranked over 100 metro areas by ease of naturalization.

First, wait times are on the rise all over the country. The most common government processing time for naturalization applications is now over 10 months — double the historical average. This spike clearly began in 2017. The actual wait time for a would-be citizen is much longer, as it includes an English and civics test among other steps leading up to the oath-taking ceremony.

Processing times in South Florida are getting very long. In my home city of Seattle, the typical processing time is now more than 15 months. In the Twin Cities, the maximum processing time is about to hit two years, and the trend lines are heading in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, backlogs are ballooning. Last year’s untouched pile of 734,000 naturalization applications was double the seven-year average, and it’s not on track to get better. In cities like Dallas, Houston, and Memphis, the government has barely cleared through a third of its backlog. The larger that backlog gets today, the longer wait times get tomorrow.

The data may not tell us why a trend is occurring, but it can show beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s happening. There can be no question that achieving U.S. citizenship is getting harder across the United States.

Data can also show when an explanation isn’t correct. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has attributed longer wait times and backlogs to a rising volume of applications. It’s true that applications for U.S. citizenship spiked in 2016–2017. Yet the data show that when much bigger spikes occurred in decades past, DHS was able to bring those backlogs down almost immediately.

I’m a numbers guy. As an entrepreneur, a big part of my job is to dive into the data, identify any troubling patterns, and correct course whenever necessary.

This nation we love needs a major course correction to make U.S. citizenship easier, not harder.

That’s because in study after study, the data show that naturalization yields overwhelmingly positive social and economic impact. Naturalized citizens earn 8–11 percent more in annual income than non-naturalized immigrants (controlling for variables such as skills, education and fluency in English). One study found that if all eligible immigrants in 21 cities were to naturalize, their aggregate income would increase by $5.7 billion, yielding 45,000 home sales and $2 billion in new tax revenue. Nationally, if half the eligible immigrant population naturalized, the increased earnings and demand could boost GDP by $52 billion per year.

My parents brought me to the United States when I was three years old, and gave me extraordinary opportunities. It’s hard to describe the pride I felt when, after months of preparing for the civics exam, I later took on the full rights and responsibilities of a U.S. citizen.

Our nation has created unprecedented wealth and innovation by embracing immigrants and allowing them to become Americans after earning their rightful place. We must never close that door.

Xiao Wang is CEO and Co-Founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps families navigate the immigration process and immigrants achieve U.S. citizenship. Follow him on Twitter @xiaowa.