With Oath Ceremonies Backlogged, U.S. Citizenship Benefits Are Out Of Reach For Thousands Of Mass. Residents
June 4, 2020
Advocates are calling on the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts to address the growing backlog of citizenship ceremonies created as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The naturalization ceremonies, which include the citizenship oath, have been on hold since March. The citizenship oath is more than a symbolic gesture. It's the final legal step in the long process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. These ceremonies, often conducted for hundreds of people at a time, have been stalled in light of the coronavirus — and the ever-evolving public health guidelines on social distancing. Sameer Ahmed, an attorney and clinical instructor with Harvard's Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, estimates nearly 7,000 Massachusetts residents — and more than 100,000 people nationwide — are still waiting to take the citizenship oath. That wait is preventing people from accessing a host of benefits they're entitled to, along with the right to vote in local, state and federal elections. Ahmed said now, during a pandemic that's wreaking havoc on the global economy, eligibility for financial benefits is crucial. "Many are unable to apply for supplemental security income, unemployment benefits, they can't vote in elections," he said. "And many just want the sense of security and belonging of what it means to be an American."
June 4, 2020
The Boston office of the federal immigration agency that deals with the country’s naturalization process reopened today, 11 weeks after shutting down most in-person services due to the coronavirus pandemic. A spokesperson said that USCIS is following the Trump administration’s three-phase guidelines for reopening the country as well as Department of Homeland Security and health officials’ policies and social distancing safety guidelines. The agency said employees will continue to telework whenever possible. In-person services will be limited to things like getting a passport stamped or scheduling oath ceremonies. No new naturalization requests will be accepted for now. USCIS is charged with processing immigrant visa petitions, naturalization, green card, asylum, and refugee applications. It also makes adjudicative decisions on those applications and manages immigration benefits, including employment authorization...Project Citizenship, an organization that works with immigrants seeking to become citizens, and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program sent a letter today asking federal court judges in Boston to resume citizenship ceremonies. They said they’re concerned that the long wait has left some people ineligible to apply for benefits like unemployment, and has also prevented them voting. The organization is suggesting outdoor ceremonies, remote ceremonies, and even foregoing administration of the oath, with USCIS simply issuing naturalization certificates. “Our concern is that due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, USCIS will likely only be able to naturalize a handful of individuals at each ceremony, said Sameer Ahmed, clinical instructor at the Harvard program. “Given that the federal court previously held large-scale oath ceremonies for hundreds of individuals, we believe that the agency’s current effort will be unable to resolve the significant backlog in a timely manner.”