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Thousands fear they can’t vote for president as coronavirus slows citizenship

First, Citizenship and Immigration Services had to shut down interviews for three months. Now, the agency faces a budget shortfall and potential furloughs.

TAMPA — For more than 300,000 people on the path to citizenship, the coronavirus may take a new toll by robbing them of their right to help choose the next president.

The federal agency in charge of processing citizenship applications stopped conducting interviews March 18, after the pandemic hit, and resumed them on a limited basis in June. That caused a backlog, aggravated recently by a $1.2 billion agency budget shortfall and potential employee furloughs.

Othoniel Perez still holds out hope he’ll be sworn in before the deadline to register for the Nov. 3 general election. The 60-year-old handyman, husband and father of two emigrated from Cuba in 2005 and lives in Brandon. In Florida, Oct. 5 is the deadline to register to vote.

“It would be like a gift from God,” Perez said. “I have always dreamed of being part of this great country and voting freely. Imagine, I never did it in Cuba.”

Perez obtained his green card as a permanent legal resident in 2016. Once he was able to get a Social Security number and a driver’s license, he started to think about the naturalization process. He was inspired by his family, especially his wife, Juana Esther, 59, who attained citizenship four years ago.

Othoniel Perez and his wife Juana Esther review his U.S. citizenship forms at their home in Brandon. The couple came from Cuba more than 15 years ago. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Thousands of applicants nationwide swore their oaths by the end of July. But 315,000 people still in the pipeline might not be able to in time for the election, based on naturalization data from the Department of Homeland Security, said Xiao Wang, chief executive of Boundless Immigration. The Seattle-based company helps immigrants and their families obtain green cards and citizenship.

In normal times, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can conduct 63,000 naturalization interviews and oath ceremonies each month, according to Boundless Immigration. From beginning to end, the process usually takes an applicant seven to 11 months in the Tampa Bay region.

But the pandemic has slowed the process, in part by aggravating existing inefficiencies in Citizenship and Immigration Services, Wang said.

“Nobody knew anything about COVID-19, but the truth is that USCIS has been very slow to adapt to this new world,” he said. “It’s a debacle.”

He questioned why the agency couldn’t conduct citizenship interviews online, in the way many companies and educational institutions have made the switch.

“Everything is virtual and remote so the question is, ‘Why not do the same thing here?‘” Wang said. “People can do it from home and move forward with the process.”

Related: Scaled-down Tampa ceremony still fulfills big dreams for most new citizens

In Florida, for each month that the agency fails to resume interviews at its previous pace, 40,000 people who are awaiting citizenship cannot vote in November, according to Boundless Immigration. That’s the second most of any state, behind California with 68,054. California is the most populous state, with nearly twice the population of No. 3 Florida.

Another immigrant advocate said the pandemic points up a long-standing need for change in national policy — extending citizenship, voting rights and legal residency to more people, for example.

“A new administration should make a series of changes to reverse course on USCIS,” said Diego Iñiguez-López, policy and campaigns manager at National Partnership for New Americans. “This includes reversing the fee increases and preserving fee waivers, reducing the backlogs, and making a series of changes that unnecessarily complicate and lengthen the application process.”

Clearing the backlog should be a top priority for the federal government, said Philip Wolgin, managing director of immigration policy at the research and advocacy group Center for American Progress.

“It is a travesty that so many people who are eligible to become citizens still won’t be able to naturalize in time to vote in the November election,” Wolgin said.

Citizenship and Immigration Services is moving faster to get people sworn in as citizens than its critics contend, spokesman Dan Hetlage said. A backlog of some 110,000 people nationwide has been eliminated, new applications are being accepted and more of them are coming in online.

“Since reopening our offices to the public and resuming in-person services on June 4, our top priority has been to resume naturalization ceremonies for those who were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hetlage said.

In the Tampa region — 10 counties from Citrus south to Lee — about 1,400 people in mid-June met all legal requirements to proceed with the oath ceremony, he said. During a six-week period around that time, at least 250 people a week took the oath.

India native Srushti Patel takes the oath of citizenship June 17 after a phased reopening of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services office in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

If the budget shortfall forces a furlough, the agency said in a statement, naturalization ceremonies will continue “but on a more limited basis.” As of July 28, some 13,400 employees had received notice that without congressional intervention they would be off the job Aug. 30.

A furlough would likely prevent Citizenship and Immigration Services from swearing in all pending applicants in time for them to vote in November, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the think tank Migration Policy Institute.

Capps said, “Substantial congressional appropriations to cover budget shortfalls and some streamlining of the process — including potentially virtual interviews and ceremonies — would be required for USCIS to get the naturalization up to speed.”

Perez of Brandon has received initial approval of his citizenship application. Now, he must complete a background check and a 20-page questionnaire before he gets an appointment for an interview and fingerprinting.

Voting is the main reason he and many others seek citizenship, Perez said, so they can have a voice in their communities.

“Hopefully, the situation improves and maybe, who knows, I can see myself voting in November. Why not?”

Lizbeth Maysonet, 46, moved to the United States from Costa Rica eight years ago. She understands the delays in attaining citizenship and why all in-person services were suspended in March.

She waited 11 months to become a citizen and feared for a while she wouldn’t be able to vote. Her interview was postponed in April because of the coronavirus. Then she received a notice July 16 that it was rescheduled for Aug. 8. She was approved.

Her oath ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 24, but she didn’t get much notice — just an email sent Wednesday.

“Something is not working right,” Maysonet said.

Still, she and her husband Luis Elias, a welder from Puerto Rico, are planning a private celebration in Largo following the ceremony. She’s looking forward to things like voting, getting a U.S. passport and serving on a jury.

“This is the country that has opened the doors for me to develop my best potential,” Maysonet said. “It’s the gift I’ve always been waiting for.”

Lizbeth Maysonet came to the United States eight years ago from Costa Rica. In a few days, she will take the oath of citizenship then register to vote for president. [ Courtesy L. Maysonet ]

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