How COVID-19 Will Affect Voting for New Citizens in 2020

Posted by Frank Gogol

General elections are coming up on November 3, 2020. Many permanent residents have dreamed of being able to vote as citizens in the country they’ve made their home. Unfortunately, as with many other things, COVID-19 has disrupted this dream with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) suspending oath ceremonies and naturalization interviews. Thousands of people will not be able to have their naturalization finalized in time to register as a voter.

What exactly does the USCIS field office closure mean for new citizens? And how many people will possibly not be able to vote as a result? Let’s take a look.

USCIS Closures and What it Means for New Citizens

USCIS offices across the U.S. have temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is part of the USCIS attempt to implement social distancing and help curb the rapid spread of the virus. 

As a result, however, immigration has practically come to a standstill. Immigrants who applied or want to apply for naturalization is no exception. And for many, this couldn’t come at a less ideal time. You’ve probably been waiting to cast your vote in the U.S. for such a long time, and this year would finally be your chance. But now you have no idea whether your naturalization application will be complete in time.

What exactly does this pause on immigration mean?

No New Citizenship Applications Processed

Unfortunately, the close of the USCIS offices means that no naturalization applications are currently being processed. It is also not only the USCIS offices that closed but all naturalization interviews have also been suspended. 

No Citizenship Oath Ceremonies

On March 18, 2020, the USCIS shut down citizenship oath ceremonies without a clear indication of when they’ll start again. Taking the oath of allegiance is a crucial part and requirement of the naturalization process. Even though Congress has given the USCIS the power to skip the live event where the ceremony is impracticable, no exceptions have been made so far. Unless an exception is made, a permanent resident can’t become a citizen without it. 

Missed Opportunities to Vote in November 2020 Election 

Eventually, what all this means is all the permanent residents who were waiting in line and expecting to be a U.S. citizen before the voter registration deadline might no longer be able to register in time. Not being able to register means not being able to cast a vote at the next general elections. Not only is this a hard knock for any individual who dreamed of voting but can’t, it also means there is a large number of people who should have been able to have their voice heard, but can’t.

How Many New Citizens will Not Get to Vote?

The quick answer is for every day the USCIS remains closed, and oath ceremonies and naturalization interviews are suspended, 2 100 immigrants will run out of time to vote.

On average, about 850 000 immigrants apply for naturalization each year. Usually, about 90% of them get approved, which means 765 000 people get approved each year. This equals about 2095 people for each calendar day (if the USCIS was open and processing over weekends). To keep things simple, let’s work with 2100 people per day. 

Usually, it takes 60 days after a person passed their naturalization interview to take their oath. Taking this into account, when oath ceremonies were shut on March 18, there was already roughly 126 000 people who would have been ready to take the oath (60 days x 2 100 people per day). 

The last day to register to vote is around October 18. This is the last day anyone can become a U.S. citizen if they still want to vote. If oath ceremonies don’t start up again by August 18, there won’t be enough time for the 126 000 already waiting to take the oath before voter registration closes. This disregarding any who also hopefully get approved in the meantime.

If oath ceremonies resume mid-August, there might be enough time for all 126 000 to take the oath before the voter registration deadline. If the oath ceremonies only open up in September, only half (63 000) of those already waiting (and who is first in line) will be able to take their oath in time. Of course, if the oath ceremonies only resume in October, none of them would be a U.S. citizen in time. 

To add on to this number, if the USCIS field offices hadn’t shut down, there would be even more people who would have passed their naturalization interviews since March 18. This is 2,100 people per day (63 000 per month).

So, 63 00 people won’t have a chance to vote for every month naturalization interviews and oath ceremonies are suspended.

The table below illustrates how the number grows every month naturalization interviews and oath ceremonies are suspended.

Month interviews and oath ceremonies open againHow many people won’t be able to vote in November
April63,000
May126,000
June189,000
July252,000
August315,000
September378,000
October441,000

What it Takes to Gain Citizenship in the U.S.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is no small task. And the wait isn’t short either. 

First, you must have been a permanent resident for at least 5 years. Then only can you file a naturalization application with USCIS. After filing the application, you have to wait about another year before you have the opportunity of a live interview with a USCIS officer. At this interview, knowledge of the U.S. civics and English is tested. If you pass the interview, you will have to wait the final two months before you can take the Oath of Allegiance at the oath ceremony.

Individuals who qualify for the naturalization interviews or who are ready to take the Oath of Allegiance have already been waiting a long time to get to this point. It’s been an ongoing process of at least 6 years. That you now have to wait for an uncertain amount of time on top of this is a hard blow.  

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Conclusion

COVID-19 has had extreme consequences for most individuals. Especially when it comes to finances and managing cash flow during COVID-19. Certainly when it comes to health and having to undergo testing and treatment. But it is also impacting many people’s ability to vote.

The USCIS’s decision to close its field offices and suspend naturalization interviews and oath ceremonies may be the correct decision in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It does not, however, mean there aren’t adverse consequences for immigrants waiting in line to get their U.S. citizenship. Thousands of people’s voices won’t be heard at the general elections in November because of this. Hopefully, the USCIS will take practical steps to keep the naturalization process going and reduce the number of individuals who will be unable to vote because of this.

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