Politics and Government

Citizenship delays could thwart thousands who dream of voting

Nearly 14K Minnesota residents await citizenship as wait times skyrocket

Mawla Saqeb with four of his children in Smith Park
Mawla Saqeb, who goes by Danyal, with four of his children in Smith Park in Bloomington, Minn. He says he wants to vote so he can “do more for the United States,” which granted him a special immigrant visa for Afghans who faced threats because they worked for the U.S. government.
Megan Burks | MPR News

With a presidential election on the horizon, hundreds of thousands of immigrants applied for U.S. citizenship last year. Back then, the average wait was 10 months — plenty of time to get approved and register to vote.

But the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the U.S. immigration system. Wait times have increased to as long as 25 months in Minnesota, and many of those who thought they had plenty of time are now hoping for a miracle.

That includes Mawla Saqeb, who goes by Danyal. He began the process of becoming a citizen nine months ago, and has yet to be called for an interview, which is the final step before naturalization.

Mawla Saqeb poses for a portrait.
Mawla Saqeb applied for citizenship in 2019 in the hopes of being able to vote in the 2020 general election. He’s one of hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S. whose cases are still pending as the pandemic pushes processing times way up.
Megan Burks | MPR News

“I wanted to be an American citizen to vote and to do more for the United States,” he said. “This is our first home now.”

In 2014, Saqeb brought his family to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government. He had been working for a military contractor. The compound where it was located was a regular target of the Taliban. 

“Every moment was under threat,” he said. “Five times I have been minutes [away] from an explosion.”

Now, Saqeb lives in Bloomington and works for Hennepin County’s real estate department.

'Unprecedented times'

His case is one of 700,885 that were still pending as of March, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last published data on applications. That includes 13,743 cases in Minnesota. About 70 percent of the applications were submitted last year.

Allegra Drobnick, an immigration counselor for the nonprofit Arrive Ministries, said the pandemic has compounded delays in an already-cumbersome system. 

“It’s unprecedented times,” she said. “I know that’s a phrase we’re hearing often and it’s going to affect immigration, as well.”

USCIS shut down its field offices in March when COVID-19 forced closures across the country. It reopened offices in June and has since granted citizenship to more than 138,000 people, according to an agency spokesperson.

But the backlog is likely not letting up. Immigration attorneys say a second surge in applicants is following last year’s, this one motivated by an 80 percent fee increase set to take effect in October.

And all this comes as USCIS plans to furlough two-thirds of its workers on Aug. 30, unless Congress passes a new coronavirus stimulus package with aid for the agency.

“Our local office has made the promise that it won’t increase times, but it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t,” said Drobnick.

She said, with so much standing in the way of clients becoming citizens, several have wondered whether what they’re experiencing amounts to voter suppression. Drobnick said she doesn’t think that’s the intent, but she also doesn’t think what’s happening is right.

“Civic participation is kind of the backbone of our country and if we have a large population, such as the immigrant population, who is not being afforded that right when eligible, it’s a huge disservice to not only them, but to the rest of us,” she said. “It’s an injustice.” 

Not only about voting

Fadumo Mohamed submitted her citizenship application last June, in part, so she didn’t have to be a single mom anymore. 

Five years ago, her mother, who was already in the U.S., was able to get Mohamed a green card. Ever since, Mohamed has been waiting for the day she could become a citizen and, in turn, sponsor her husband. He lives in Kenya. 

“It’s very hard. It’s not easy, but still, I’m doing my best,” said Mohamed about raising her two kids alone. “Everything I have to do by myself — appointments, school, everything. And right now I would like to go back to college to be a nurse.”

Mohamed said voting is also important to her. She’d like to weigh in on immigration policy so others don’t have to follow her family’s complicated path. 

'It’s going to take how long it takes'

Drobnick is helping both Mohamed and Saqeb with their cases. She said there shouldn’t be any red flags holding up their applications; she thoroughly screens each client for eligibility.

“It’s just going to take how long it takes, as frustrating as that is,” Drobnick said.

Saqeb is disappointed, but he isn’t placing blame.

“This is the government process. I know how busy they are, as I hear that there are 700,000 cases ongoing there,” Saqeb said. “So I have to be patient.”

He still has reason to hope. His wife, who applied at the same time, was approved last month and will take her oath of allegiance Thursday.