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Follow our coverage of immigration and related issues affecting Latinos in the Charlotte area.

Charlotte Immigration Sees Effects Of Coronavirus, Spending Cuts, Policy Changes

United States Naturalization Certificate
Laura Brache/WFAE
United States Naturalization Certificate

In an auditorium with dozens of other people, Alba Sanchez, a Costa Rican mother in Charlotte, took her naturalization oath as her mother and son looked on from the crowd. For Sanchez, one of 834,000 people naturalized as a United States citizen in 2019, the time it took to get there was quicker than expected. 

"The application was submitted on July 31, 2018, and by March 21, 2019, I was a citizen," Sanchez said.

There’s no set timetable for how long it takes to become a U.S. citizen.

According to Dan Hetlage, a spokesperson for the Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency naturalizes about 3,195 people as citizens a day. Hetlage says this amounts to a new citizen being sworn in every 27 seconds.

But the wait got longer this year. In March, naturalizations and several other in-person services came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic. That added nearly 110,000 cases to the already existing backlog of about 700,000 pending citizenship requests. For many immigrants, it threatened the chance of becoming a citizen in time to register to vote in the November election.

Alba Sanchez
Credit Laura Brache/WFAE
Alba Sanchez works from her office at the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte

Sanchez will vote in her first presidential election. She says being able to do so is more important than ever.

"I’m doing it for those 70,000 or so children who’ve been separated from their parents at the border," Sanchez said. "That’s what my vote represents this year. That’s why I’ll vote — against such injustice and abuse from this government."

Hetlage says all pending cases between March and June were completed within the first weeks of reopening. The agency estimates that around 600,000 people will receive their citizenship by the end of September. That’s around 200,000 fewer new citizens than the previous year.

“While it is true that our production has likely declined due to the past temporary suspension of in-person services as a result of the pandemic, it is also true that we are on our way to another extremely productive year and we still believe that we will manage to end the fiscal year with approximately 600,000 new citizens,” Hetlage said. 

The Numbers In The Carolinas

Between January and March 2019, 2,397 people received their citizenship in Charlotte. In Raleigh, there were 1,746 during this period. This year, only 1,990 people were approved in the Charlotte office, while the number of new citizens in Raleigh increased by only 50 people this year.

In South Carolina, the changes are less apparent. About 738 people in the Charleston office and 583 in Greer received their citizenship between January and March of last year. This year, the totals were 520 and 634 for Charleston and Greer, respectively.

Jamilah Espinosa
Credit Zoom
Immigration attorney Jamilah Espinosa during a Zoom interview with WFAE and La Noticia.

Immigration attorney Jamilah Espinosa says she is impressed with how quickly applicants — just an oath away from citizenship — had their ceremonies rescheduled, even with new COVID-19 restrictions in place. 

“I do give USCIS credit that during the pandemic, once they were able to reschedule, they rescheduled citizenships with priority to get those people (to be) sworn in and register to vote,” she said.

Since Donald Trump took office as president, organizations such as the Migration Policy Institute and the National Partnership for New Americans noticed an increase in applications for citizenship. They say it’s due to the president's anti-immigrant rhetoric. In fact, USCIS’ Hetlage says the number of citizenship applications more than doubled between 2010 and 2017.

“(The number of applications) more than doubled under the previous administration, going from 291,800 in September. from 2010 to almost 700,000 at the beginning of 2017,” Hetlage said.

Still, Espinosa is concerned about the recent and continuous policy changes from immigration services. Despite the increase in requests, the self-funded government agency says it's facing a deficit and threatened a furlough of 70% of its workforce, significant budget cuts and fee increases.

“It makes you wonder why? What is the true motive? You know, Congress has already kind of looked and reviewed the budget for USCIS and determined that they're self-funded and they're able to really maintain based on the fees. So, it is very worrying,” Espinosa said.

As Immigrant Legal Center manager for the Latin American Coalition, Ivonne Bass helps immigrants with their applications in Charlotte. She says the Coalition has been fighting against the clock ahead of the fee increases that will go into effect Oct. 2, including an extra $500 tacked onto the $700 naturalization application fee.

“What this means is that we are in a time crunch until Oct. 1 to file as many citizenship applications,” Bass said. “On top of that now our low income ... legal permanent residents are able to apply with a fee waiver, and after Oct. 2 that’s not gonna be the case anymore.”

'Legal Path To Citizenship' Has Become Difficult

Attorney Jamilah Espinosa says recent measures by the Trump administration (such as attempts to eliminate the temporary protected status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs, as well as restrictions on asylum, or the so-called public charge rule) are creating even more barriers to the path towards legal immigration as we know it.

In Charlotte, Espinosa says that legal residency or "green card" applications typically take about six months to process. But since the pandemic, applicants will have to wait nearly a year for a response. One of Espinosa's clients is suffering from the long waits and says she is frustrated that her husband cannot come to the United States without affecting her legal case.

“(She) was supposed to be interviewed in March. Her husband is in Mexico, and that interview was canceled and has not been rescheduled. (She) has a lot of medical conditions and really wants to have her husband here with her,” Espinosa said. “The processing the delay processing is definitely having an effect on her emotionally, mentally, and on her husband, because his hands are tied.”

The Migration Policy Institute says that the coronavirus pandemic made it easier for Trump's administration to achieve its remaining campaign promises to change the immigration system, including travel bans, visa restrictions for foreign workers and exchange students and more scrutiny in the evaluation process of immigration applicants.

USCIS building in Charlotte
Credit Laura Brache / WFAE
USCIS Charlotte Field Office building.

The Cost Of Legal Status

To "recoup" the cost of services, USCIS announced in July that it will raise the prices of the citizenship application and other immigration procedures by 81%. The proposed rule would take effect on Oct. 2.

For example, the cost to apply for citizenship will increase by $520, going from $640 to $1,160. The cost of a work permit (Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization) will increase from $410 to $550. 

A complete list of changes in the prices of immigration procedures is available here.

Espinosa says she is surprised that the cost of applying for citizenship is increasing so much since applicants are already legal residents and have been screened multiple times to get to that point. She believes they are the least likely to need to be tested compared to a newcomer. 

Diego Iniguez-Lopez, policy and campaign manager for the National Partnership for New Americans, believes the changes are meant to make the legal path toward citizenship more difficult.

“They want to make it more expensive and price out working-class, low-income immigrants,” he said. “They want to make the process more lengthy and then prevent people from naturalizing and be able to vote in November elections.”

U.S. Immigration Services estimates around 600,000 people will receive their citizenship by the end of September in the U.S. That’s around 200,000 fewer new citizens than the previous year.

“I do just really plead to people, if you are eligible for (financial) relief, don't wait to do it. If you're eligible for citizenship and you think you can pass the exam, just go ahead and do it now,” Espinosa said. “Don't let these be increases that hinder your ability to become a U.S. citizen.”

Laura Brache is a Report for America corps member and covers immigration and the Latino community in Charlotte for WFAE and La Noticia.

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Laura Brache works with WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte, through Report for America to cover immigration and deportation issues facing the Latino community. She also reports on the Charlotte immigration court, one of the toughest in the nation with the second-highest deportation rate in the country in 2019.