The wait for citizenship

Jesus SanJuan is one of thousands of people who have applied for U.S. citizenship in Seattle, but have been waiting for their applications to be processed for longer than a year. (Photo courtesy OneAmerica.)

In September 2017, Jesus SanJuan started on the path to citizenship.

A year later, he’s still waiting.

“In the beginning, I was excited about it,” SanJuan said. “The first three months I asked my wife ‘Anything? Anything?’ and now it’s like, I don’t even ask anymore.”

SanJuan is one of thousands of naturalization applicants who immigrations advocates say are caught in a “second wall.” Before this year, it had taken a four or five months for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to process the citizenship application. But now it’s taking up to 20 months for an application to go through.

At this rate, people who apply for citizenship in 2018 may not get a chance to vote for president in 2020.

USCIS has blamed tech issues as a contributor to the hold up, and says the delays date back to a 2005 switch to online applications, according to an article published earlier this year in Reveal. USCIS also blamed its funding system for the backlog —  fees from the previous year funds the staffing and other expenses for the the current year. The agency says there are a lot more applications this year than last year, which means resources lag behind demand.

But Mallori Thompson, grants and integration manager for OneAmerica’s Washington New Americans program, said that USCIS has no excuse.

Thompson said 750,000 people sent in their $750 for their application, which should be enough to increase the staffing at the agency.

“Where is that money going?” she said. “Every time you talk to them about it, they tell us there’s nothing that they’re going to be doing about it and don’t expect that wait to get any less.”

USCIS did not respond to questions from The Seattle Globalist.

Earlier this year, OneAmerica joined a nationwide effort to pressure the federal agency to decrease wait times or release information about why the wait times have increased in the past few years.

“The effort is called The Second Wall campaign because it really is the administration’s attempt to put up a second barrier for immigrants to access their full rights look their you know rightfully entitled to,” Thompson said. “This really is not a very well disguised effort of voter suppression.”

In the meantime, Thompson said the applicants in their program are “frantic and worried because they think something’s wrong, because it should have taken six to eight months maybe ten.”

“We are helping people apply and then they are stuck,” she said.

Lives on hold

SanJuan came to the U.S. at age five with his mother who was escaping her abusive husband in Mexico. SanJuan, who now is 33, became a legal permanent resident in 2008.

He grew up in the United States with his two siblings and his stepdad who he considers “real dad.” His three children were born in the United States, and he has a construction business that employs five people.

SanJuan said he has empathy for the immigrant children who have been held in detention centers.

“It’s hard for me to explain on one end, but on one end I was one of those kids,” SanJuan said. “When I got caught with my mom crossing the border they tried to split us apart.”

He thought the threat of deportation was behind him when he received his U.S. residency.

“Now that I am a resident, I am allowed to do certain things without fear,” SanJuan said.

But that changed last year. His oldest son came home crying.

“He asked me if I was born in Mexico and I said ‘yes’ and he asked, ‘So that means they can deport you. They can take you away from us?’” SanJuan said.

Now he fears that a tiny mistake could cost him his residency.

“I have been here since I was five, I don’t know anything other than U.S.,” SanJuan said. “I don’t have any life in Mexico, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

He agrees with Thompson, that the backlog in Seattle could be a form of voter suppression.

“What I think is that the government is trying to do something with Seattle because it’s a sanctuary city,” SanJuan said. “Trying to punish Seattle in someway.”

Munir Murad is another immigrant in the same boat. Murad, originally from Bangladesh, applied for citizenship in July 2017.

He’s been here since 2011, when he was a student. In 2013, he got married just a few months before graduating with with his masters in computer science and moved to Seattle to work at Amazon. His wife, also from Bangladesh, was already a citizen. Murad got a green card and applied for naturalization in July 2017.

He expected to become a citizen within a year of applying. A little over a year later, Murad is still waiting to hear back.

“During this time I was planning on going back home to Bangladesh to visit my family but I was not able to go because I fear that I would have to start the whole process over again” Murad said. He also wants to buy a house.

“The loan is approved but I was not sure if I should sign it, because I will have to [update] my address” Murad said.

The house is still under construction and is set to be completed next month, according to Murad.

He fears having to keep his current address even after moving to his new house and having to pay rent on top of his mortgage, but he fears that he would miss the crucial naturalization interview if he moves.

“I have to pay my mortgage and my rent, which will be economically hard,” Murad said. “Otherwise you will have to start over [the naturalization process].”

He says he thinks the lack of application reviewers is what is taking so long.

“I called and was told they were reviewing appeal applications and I called again after two months, in July and they were still looking at appeals from 2017,” Murad said. “So you see, they are not moving faster.”

Munir Murad filed for naturalization in July 2017. (Photo by Rahwa Hailemariam)