Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2018

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The wait to become a citizen is getting longer

Image

Steve Marcus

A woman holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony at the Historic Fifth Street School Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Seventy-five people from 26 countries became naturalized U.S. citizens.

For more than a decade, Alicia Contreras has helped immigrants apply for citizenship.

It was only recently that she noticed wait times for applications growing much longer.

“I’ve done this in many states,” said Contreras, the Nevada director of Mi Familia Vota. “We’ve gone from 3 to 4 months (waiting), to 6 to 8 months, to now over a year.”

She isn’t the only one noticing the delay. Immigration groups and attorneys in Las Vegas also see longer wait times.

“It’s because you have an administration focused on enforcement and not focused on fixing the application process,” immigration attorney Peter Ashman said.

Ashman has worked as an immigration attorney for 30 years. Until last year, he advised clients it might take three months to hear from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

“Now, I’ve had clients waiting for a year,” he said.

It’s not just the influx of applications that lengthened the time frame, but also some of the overall processes that have changed within the agency. In the past, employment-based green cards didn’t require face-to-face interviews, but now they do.

“It’s just not a good use of resources,” Ashman said.

The backlog didn’t happen overnight.

From October 2016 to June, 783,330 people filed applications nationally, which was up from the previous year, according to USCIS.

“From what I understand, (the backlog) was because there was an increase of the national number of applications prior to the election,” said Jasmine Coca, director of Immigration Services for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.

Coca said it’s common to see an influx of applications during an election year.

“People want to be able to vote,” she said. “It’s important to be able to have their voices heard.”

Contreras said what made 2016 different was the political climate and anti-immigrant rhetoric directed toward certain communities. With the election of President Donald Trump, fears intensified among immigrants.

“People knew the stakes were high,” she added. “So people who had been (legal) residents for 20 or 30 years decided to take the plunge and apply. They knew their vote could affect their families.”

Contreras said USCIS wasn’t prepared for the number of applications it received, and added that was a disservice to the community.

“It’s not a simple thing to gather up your life and find the money to do this,” she said.

Waiting a prolonged period of time also comes with some inconveniences.

“Employment can be held up in some cases,” Ashman said.

Even if people are legal permanent residents while waiting for citizenship, Contreras said she had seen some employers who weren’t educated on the subject and prevented people from working.

And delays can cause travel complications. Ashman advises clients not to travel while they are waiting for applications to process.

“There are some exceptions,” he said, “(like) if it is an emergency.”

Many of Ashman’s clients who were able to apply did so because of uncertainty surrounding the current administration. They thought citizenship approval would ease some of their fears. However, the prolonged wait time is amping up their anxiety.

Contreras said groups should move forward and help the next wave of applicants, and a backlog shouldn’t stop anyone from applying.

“My advice is to continue to go through the process,” she said.

For those who do, Coca recommended seeking legal advice to better understand the system, and Contreras cautioned immigrants to watch out for scams claiming to offer legal help.

Whether it’s an attorney like Ashman, or an agency like Mi Familia Vota or Catholic Charities, having help makes navigating the complicated process easier.

In the long run, Ashman said he hoped the process would improve. He added that the backlog was not only detrimental to the country but also to places like Las Vegas that benefit from immigrants.

“We will lose our edge because of our immigration policies, and people will want to go somewhere else,” he said.