A proposed class action lawsuit seeks a court order to expedite the final step of the naturalization process for U.S. citizenship applicants whose ceremonies were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Filed against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and several officials, including the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Attorney General William Barr, the 18-page complaint states that USCIS’s Philadelphia field office normally conducts four naturalization ceremonies per week at which over 400 lawful permanent residents with approved naturalization applications publicly swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and become U.S. citizens. As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, however, USCIS canceled scheduled in-person naturalization ceremonies beginning in mid-March, the suit says.
Filed in part by the National Immigration Litigation Alliance (NILA) and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the case argues that while the initial delay was “both understandable and necessary,” it has deprived hundreds of individuals under the jurisdiction of USCIS’s Philadelphia field office of the benefits and privileges of U.S. citizenship, including the right to vote. According to the suit, “further delay is unnecessary” as Congress has empowered both the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in which the lawsuit was filed, and USCIS to conduct either judicial oath ceremonies or immediate administrative naturalization.
A naturalization ceremony is the final step on an individual’s path to becoming a U.S. citizen and occurs only after the applicant has passed both a background investigation conducted by USCIS and the FBI and an interview with a USCIS examiner at which the individual’s English language proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and government are tested, the lawsuit explains. After the applicant signs an oath of allegiance in the presence of a USCIS officer and has “complied with all requirements for naturalization,” his or her application is granted. Applicants are then generally required to swear an oath of allegiance to the U.S. in a “public ceremony,” the case says, at which point they become U.S. citizens.
The complaint goes on to explain that an individual may obtain an expedited administration of the oath of allegiance authorized by either a district court or USCIS to complete the naturalization process under “special circumstances.” If an expedited judicial oath administration ceremony is impractical, a court may refer the individual to the DHS Secretary, “who may provide for immediate administrative naturalization,” the suit says.
Although USCIS’s Philadelphia field office began to resume naturalization ceremonies on June 4, the lawsuit claims “a much larger, expedited effort is needed” to ensure that hundreds of individuals whose U.S. citizenship has been delayed during the COVID-19 crisis are not “needlessly harmed” by additional delays. According to the suit, the USCIS Philadelphia office currently holds only a few ceremonies per day with five attendees, resulting in a total of about 75 people becoming U.S. citizens per week. The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs, immigrants from Jamaica and Syria whose naturalization ceremonies were canceled or never scheduled, may face months of additional delays before they can complete the citizenship process.
Delays in the naturalization process cause “significant harm” to the plaintiffs and proposed class members given they are unable to enjoy the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship, including the right to vote in state, local and federal elections, the plaintiffs argue. In order to vote in the federal election on November 3, 2020, the plaintiffs must register to vote by mail or online by October 19, the suit says.
Per the case, deprivation of or delayed access to rights afforded to U.S. citizens may have a “devastating impact” on not only the lives of those waiting for their naturalization ceremonies, but their families and communities as well. From the complaint:
“Some individuals are cut off from essential benefits like Social Security Income. Some will not become eligible to apply for other public benefits that they may desperately need during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Others face prolonged separation from immediate family members for whom they are waiting to file immigrant visa petitions. And all will be denied their right to register to vote and fully participate in this democracy by voting in the upcoming general elections if they are not naturalized in time to register to vote before the elections.”
The plaintiffs say they have been unable to provide assistance to their families as a result of delays in the naturalization process. One plaintiff says naturalization will preserve her ability to petition for her Jamaican sons to immigrate to the U.S., while the other plaintiff claims he has been unable to travel to see his wife and children in Turkey or obtain a visa for his wife as the spouse of a U.S. citizen.
The lawsuit asks the court to grant to proposed class members expedited administrative naturalization, which the complaint says could include conducting virtual oath ceremonies remotely, administering the oath telephonically, providing final approval based on the oath conducted at the naturalization interview, or scheduling individual oath ceremonies in accordance with state safety measures. The case further asks that the naturalizations be conducted at least 21 days prior to October 19, 2020, the last day on which Pennsylvania residents may register to vote in the national November election.
“Many of the proposed class members have waited years for U.S. citizenship and were on the brink of obtaining it before the pandemic hit,” the NILA’s Trina Realmuto said in a statement to Law360. “We hope that our lawsuit will prompt USCIS to prioritize administering the oath of allegiance so they can finally complete the process and become citizens.”
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