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Don't suppress votes of new citizens

Credit: Paul Tong

Voter suppression is an old story that comes in many incarnations. Usually, the culprits are states, which restrict ballot access or gerrymander districts.

But a new kind of voter suppression is being perpetrated by the federal government and flying largely under the radar: a multifaceted effort to prevent legal immigrants from becoming citizens in time to vote.

This is not about immigration, which concerns who is permitted to enter the country. Rather, it’s about naturalization, the process through which legal permanent residents become citizens.

Most people, regardless of political persuasion, express support for those who have entered the country legally with the goal of becoming citizens. “I don’t think any American can fail to be moved by a moment like this,” remarked Vice President Mike Pence earlier this fall at a White House naturalization ceremony. He lauded the new citizens’ “determination to join the American family.”

Yet the Trump administration has quietly made it harder for eligible immigrants to become citizens.

On Nov. 14, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services proposed hiking the application fee for most people from $640 to $1,170 and eliminating a reduced-cost option for lower wage earners; they’ve also made it harder for very low-income applicants to obtain fee waivers.

Meanwhile, the administration has been processing applications at a snail’s pace, creating a tremendous backlog. The wait has doubled in recent years, with the nationwide amount of pending naturalization applications totaling nearly 700,000 as of June — more than the populations of Wyoming or Vermont. The government’s efficiency in handling the backlog is at its lowest level in a decade, and in some places, the estimated wait exceeds two years.

The government has pledged faster processing, but its refusal even to provide data about the problem belies this promise. Last fall, a coalition of organizations sued to get backlog-related documents; court filings show little disclosure by the government since then.

In the shooting-ourselves-in-the-foot category, the administration has created naturalization barriers even for immigrants serving our country. In 2017, the Department of Defense made it harder for service members to gain citizenship through a program offering a citizenship fast track to immigrant recruits with needed skills. Last year, the military discharged dozens of recruits enlisted under the program.

The administration even opened an office focused on stripping naturalized citizens of their citizenship.

Blocking or delaying people from becoming citizens affects their lives in countless ways, including depriving them of the ability to vote.

Could the chokehold on naturalization be decisive next year? In 2016, around 8% of voters were naturalized citizens. President Trump won Florida by 112,911 votes and Michigan by 10,704. As of June, there were 64,257 citizenship applications pending in Florida and 8,294 in Michigan. In a close 2020 election, extreme naturalization delays could impact the outcome.

While 82 House Democrats signed a letter to the Government Accountability Office and the House held a hearing on the overall immigration backlog, there has been little focus specifically on the voter suppression impact, aside from a report by the National Partnership for New Americans.

The current administration is surely aware of its unpopularity among newly naturalized voters; a Univision News poll showed 78% disapproval of Trump’s performance among Hispanics. Delaying citizenship to potential new voters is an effective way to depress turnout.

State and local leaders should shine a light on backlogs affecting their constituents. Congress should scrutinize naturalization delays and their potential impact on voter rolls. The public should seek answers to all of this, as well as submit comments opposing the application cost hike. All of us should demand that our aspiring brothers and sisters be given the chance, without delay, to join the American family.

Terri Gerstein is the director of the state and local enforcement project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.