2022 State Of New American Citizenship Report

The USA also has program delivery problems:

Surging BacklogCitizenship Application Filed Naationwide

A look at the past decade indicates a worrying trend.

Although application volume was expected to fall, the volume increased to almost 1.2 million applicants through the end of 2021, and although processing volume had begun to increase in 2019, the cessation of processing applications due to COVID-19 has led to a surge in the backlog of pending applications, with nearly 800,000 applications still pending by the end of 2021.

USCIS, the federal agency responsible for processing citizenship applications, has defended itself by noting that the backlog more than doubled during the Obama administration. This is true: the backlog rose from nearly 292,000 in September 2010 to over 636,000 by the time Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017.

But USCIS has also claimed that the surge in applications during 2016 and 2017 created a “record and unprecedented” workload. A look at the past 3 decades shows, however, that this is not true.


In 2007, citizenship applications surged to nearly 1.4 million, far higher than the recent uptick. This was driven in part by a looming 80% application fee hike that year, and an increase in newly eligible immigrants who had obtained their green cards 5 years earlier under the Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act of 2000.

USCIS responded with a surge in processing volume the following year, and the backlog plunged to a 30-year low of about 257,000 in 2009.

In the mid-1990s, there was a truly “record and unprecedented” surge in citizenship applications, driven in part by a corresponding increase in newly eligible immigrants who had received green cards under the Immigration Reform and Control Act 1986 (IRCA, also known as the “Reagan Amnesty”). Between 1995 and 1998, application volume stayed well above 900,000, peaking at over 1.4 million in 1997. Although the backlog initially shot past 2 million in 1997-1998, USCIS responded with a comparable surge in processing volume that appears to have tamed the backlog by 1999-2000.

The data indicate that when USCIS devotes sufficient resources to a citizenship application surge, it is possible to dramatically reduce the backlog within one year. That’s what happened in 2000, 2007, and again in 2012.

On the other hand, when USCIS fails to devote sufficient resources, backlogs can get way out of hand. That’s what happened in the mid-1990s, and it appears to be happening again.


Pace of citizenship backlog reduction

Another way to evaluate this problem is to measure how efficiently USCIS beats back its backlogs. If USCIS processed every citizenship application it received in a given year, plus the applications that were pending from the previous year, that would yield a “backlog completion” rate of 100%.

In reality, USCIS achieved a backlog completion rate of 77% in 2009 — a 30-year high — and this number has been trending downward ever since. There was a 10-point drop in backlog completion between 2016 and 2017 (from 63% to 53%), but backlog completion crept back up to 67% in 2019 before falling drastically in 2020 to 47%, which was the lowest backlog completion rate since 2007 (39%).

By the end of fiscal year 2021, however, the rate at which USCIS was completing naturalization cases had recovered somewhat, to just under 52%. Unfortunately, comparing the fourth quarter of FY2021 with the first two quarters of FY2022, a trend is not immediately apparent: USCIS finished Q4 of 2021 with a backlog completion rate of 24%, but by the end of December 2021 it had dropped to 22% before recovering to 25% at the end of Q2 in March 2022. USCIS’s year-end data will reveal if the agency was able to maintain its improving overall pace of clearing the citizenship backlog.


Processing times citizenship

Growing backlogs have direct and negative consequences for immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens: They have to wait longer for their applications to be processed by the government.

Here the trend is unmistakable: Between 2012 and 2016, median application processing times hovered between about 4.5 to 6 months, before shooting past 8 months in 2017 and hovering at about 10 months in 2018 and 9 months in 2020. Compounding the worrisome trend, starting in March 2020 the coronavirus lockdown postponed the final steps for naturalization—interviews and oath ceremonies — until offices reopened in June 2020.

Source: 2022 State Of New American Citizenship Report

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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