LOS ANGELES (CN) – A coalition of immigrant rights and voter advocates filed a federal lawsuit Monday over the Trump administration’s “methodical” delays in processing naturalization applications, which they claim is a politically motivated effort to suppress potential voters.
At a press conference Monday, advocates said U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services’ extreme vetting, increased denials of applications and excessive delay tactics have caused a backlog of over 753,000 applications, a 93 percent increase from 2015.
Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said the average processing period for applications is 20 months – up from the previous average of 6 or 7 months.
The backlog has reached 138,000 applications in California, including 17,750 in Los Angeles, according to a statement on the lawsuit by Salas’ organization.
Salas said it is “unacceptable” that immigrants – who pay at least $725 in application fees – don’t hear back from Citizenship and Immigration Services when citizenship status could protect them from deportation proceedings and gain them the right to vote.
She said the backlog amounts to “backhanded voter suppression” and a “second wall” after the border wall between the U.S and Mexico.
Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, which filed the lawsuit, said the delays are part of a program meant to ensure that “immigrants, particularly those in battleground states, do not have the opportunity to participate fully in civic life and vote in upcoming elections.”
Schey called the delays “irrational, illegal and unconscionable.”
In a 26-page complaint, the coalition ask a federal judge to order the release of public records on budgets, responses to congressional inquiries, data sets, policies and directives that will help advocates uncover the reasons behind the backlog.
“Defendant’s extreme vetting of naturalization applications and delays in the processing of these applications denies thousands of lawful permanent residents the opportunity to more fully participate in civic life and to vote in important upcoming elections,” the groups say in their complaint.
They also want the federal courts to find Citizenship and Immigration Services in violation of Administrative Procedure Act and the Due Process Clause due to its failure to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The National Partnership for New Americans filed its FOIA request on Aug. 6 for documents related to the backlog. The agency did not respond to the request in the timeframe prescribed by federal law and has refused to waive FOIA request fees, the group says.
Diego Iniguez-Lopez with the National Partnership for New Americans said the applicants, many of whom have lived in their communities for decades, have the right to apply for citizenship and which Citizenship and Immigration Services is required to make a fair process.
“Under the Trump administration, [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] has overseen a skyrocketing of the backlogs,” Iniguez-Lopez said. “This ‘second wall’ is delaying applicants from becoming citizens and active members of this nation and its democracy.”
In June, 50 members of Congress sent a letter to Citizenship and Immigration Services requesting documents related to the backlog.
At the press conference, Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said committee members have not received a response.
Gomez – whose sister has an application stuck in the backlog – said the motivation for the delay is not national security.
“This administration doesn’t believe immigrants should be in this country,” Gomez said. “It’s a shame.”
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, said congressional committees can conduct investigative hearings if Democrats regain control of the House.
Monday marks Constitution and Citizenship Day, which Salas said used to be a day of collaboration between community organizations and Citizenship and Immigration Services to promote citizenship.
“Now we’re suing,” she said.
Salas said the coalition wants people to continue applying for citizenship, despite the mounting backlog and delays, in order to win the right to vote.
But Benjamin Monterosso of Mi Familia Vota said the lawsuit is not being filed “for political gain.” Instead, it’s meant to ensure that the citizenship process functions as it should under federal law.
“We’re not asking anything for free. We pay taxes and our fee to apply for citizenship,” Monterosso said. “[U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] is gonna delay us but we’re not gonna stop.”
Agency spokesman Michael Bars declined to comment on the lawsuit but said in a statement that all pending cases continue to be adjudicated.
Bars said the caseload originally “skyrocketed” under the Obama administration, going from 291,800 in September 2010 to nearly 700,000 by the beginning of 2017.
“Now, despite a record and unprecedented application surge workload, USCIS is completing more citizenship applications, more efficiently and effectively—outperforming itself as an agency,” Bars said. “In fact, USCIS is on pace to complete at least 829,000 N-400 naturalization applications in fiscal year 2018, potentially exceeding a 5-year high in the number of applications processed.”
The agency expanded its workforce of adjudication officers by 38 percent between 2012 and 2017, opened three new field offices and expanded 10 others in order to meet the increase in naturalization applications, Bars said.
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