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Immigrants are suing the U.S. government over delays in citizenship process

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

A group of immigrants is suing the U.S. government, claiming that unreasonable delays have kept their citizenship applications on hold for years. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is the agency responsible for processing applications. But the recent lawsuit alleges that the agency moved a mass amount of applications to a storage facility at the beginning of the pandemic and never retrieved the documents, stalling the immigrants' hopes of becoming U.S. citizens. Now that the agency is working at full capacity again, the applicants are demanding prioritization.

We wanted to know more about what's going on here, so we called Kate Melloy Goettel. She is the legal director of litigation at the American Immigration Council, the legal nonprofit bringing this lawsuit on behalf of immigrants. Kate Melloy Goettel, welcome.

KATE MELLOY GOETTEL: Hi, Elissa.

NADWORNY: So first, can you give us the background on filing this lawsuit?

MELLOY GOETTEL: Yeah. So we started hearing a couple of months ago that people were really frustrated that they had filed for naturalization about two years ago and that their applications were stuck. For a lot of people, they were looking towards November and want to be able to vote in the election then. Others just want to be a bigger, fuller member of U.S. society. And so they were getting frustrated that their applications were stuck, and they had learned that it was because their immigration files needed to be retrieved from the National Records Center that operates a limestone cave in the Kansas City area.

NADWORNY: So the crux is that the files are not in the place they need to be.

MELLOY GOETTEL: Exactly.

NADWORNY: And is that what the government is saying is the reason for these delays? Have they provided a response?

MELLOY GOETTEL: Well, so a lot of the applicants know through their attorneys that their immigration files need to be retrieved. Some of them have heard, in fact, that they're at these National Archives cave in the Kansas City area, while others have just learned that they're not moving forward because their immigration files are delayed, and they need those immigration files to go forward with scheduling the naturalization interview and then continuing with the sort of bureaucratic processes that have to happen before the final step of swearing the oath as a naturalized U.S. citizen.

NADWORNY: Can you tell me about some of the clients you represent?

MELLOY GOETTEL: One of the clients is Thomas Carter (ph). He's filed suit because he's very fearful that he and his husband could be separated if they don't share the same citizenship. He also has an infant child, and I think that that has really encouraged him to want to have roots in the United States with his newly growing family. He's also anxious to participate in the electoral process and to put down roots, so he's one of the applicants who has been waiting since 2020 to be naturalized.

NADWORNY: What are you asking the court to do?

MELLOY GOETTEL: So we're asking the court to tell the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as well as the National Archives to prioritize these naturalization applications and to go in there and try to get these applications out so that they can move forward with processing the applications. As you can imagine, there's a number of steps and bureaucratic process that has to take place in order to approve someone for naturalization, and that process takes many months. And so we're really down to the wire now to get people naturalized for November's election.

NADWORNY: So some reports say that it can take up to 24 months to complete the naturalization process. I'm wondering, how is what's happening here different than the wait times applicants typically experience?

MELLOY GOETTEL: Well, the wait times that USCIS has recently published have been around 11 months. But what we also know more anecdotally is we're hearing many, many stories of people who filed after these 13 plaintiffs getting scheduled for their naturalization interviews and actually going forward and taking the naturalization oath. So we know that they're not processing these in any sort of systematic line but rather that there are people who applied in 2020 who are just stuck because, frankly, their immigration files are stuck.

NADWORNY: Yeah, because these are stories, you know, that - they have implications for their family, for their life. You know, it's...

MELLOY GOETTEL: That's right.

NADWORNY: ...This ripple effect. Your organization is representing 13 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but how many are actually impacted here?

MELLOY GOETTEL: Well, we don't know the exact number of how many are impacted, but I can tell you that since we filed our lawsuit, we have heard so many stories from individuals and from their attorneys that are stuck in the same position. So we do think this is a fairly widespread problem, and we're hoping that, through this lawsuit, that we can really encourage the agency to prioritize naturalization and prioritize getting those files out and getting them scheduled.

NADWORNY: You've mentioned there is kind of a looming deadline. Your clients want to be able to vote in this year's election this fall. Tell me about the timeline. Is that going to be possible?

MELLOY GOETTEL: With prioritizing naturalization applications, it totally could be possible. And what we want to point to is this administration, their own words and their own commitment to naturalization. In the early days of the Biden-Harris administration, they issued an executive order specifically calling out better processing of naturalization applications and, you know, talking about how important naturalization is. And so we really want them to live up to those words that they said in the early days of the administration and make this a priority. We think if it can be a priority, that that is a realistic timeline to get this done in the next six months.

NADWORNY: That was Kate Melloy Goettel. She is the legal director of litigation at the American Immigration Counsel. Kate, thank you so much for being with us.

MELLOY GOETTEL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.