Immigrant rights groups filed suit Monday in Los Angeles against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services over an allegedly intentional slowdown by the Trump administration in the processing of naturalization applications.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court by groups including the National Partnership for New Americans, stems from the citizenship agency's alleged failure to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request on Aug. 6 to produce documents related to the backlog of citizenship applications.
A USCIS representative said that as a matter of policy, the agency is unable to comment on matters involving specific litigation. However, USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement that generally, the agency "continues to adjudicate the pending caseload which skyrocketed under the Obama administration."
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NPNA filed the FOIA request seeking to uncover alleged "racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination" by USCIS leadership, according to the complaint, which also alleges an intentional slowdown in processing in order to limit the number of new voters who might vote against the current administration.
Although the processing of applications and background checks are fully funded by the $725 fee paid by the applicant, USCIS has refused to allocate additional resources for the timely and professional processing of those applications, the rights groups contend.
The result is that the naturalization backlog has skyrocketed to 753,000 applications nationally, a 93 percent increase over what the backlog was as recently as late 2015, the NPNA alleges.
Among that alleged backlog are 17,570 applications from Los Angeles County and 16,614 applications from the city of Los Angeles as of the end of March.
Bars countered that USCIS is currently "on pace to complete at least 829,000 N-400 naturalization applications in Fiscal Year 2018, potentially exceeding a 5-year high in the number of applications processed. This is a testament to the diligence, training, and expertise of adjudicators and agency staff stationed at our offices around the country."
Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and legal counsel for the FOIA requesting parties, alleged that the Trump administration's "policy of creating unnecessary obstacles to long-term resident immigrants naturalizing and becoming United States citizens is irrational, illegal and unconscionable."
"It is a not very well-camouflaged form of voter suppression," he said. "The internal documents we are now seeking under the Freedom of Information Act will shed light on this illegal covert program and allow us to assess how litigation may be used to end the administration's voter suppression program. Immigrants should be encouraged, not actively discouraged, to become citizens and play a more active role in the civic life of society."
At the current rate of processing applications, it would take USCIS more than 25 years to get the current rate down to the Obama administration's backlog level of 380,639 applications in 2015, not including new applications, the NPNA alleges.
Bars said that more than 240 naturalization ceremonies for a total of 42,821 naturalized citizens took place in the past week, "signifying the culmination of the lawful naturalization process and a journey cherished by both new citizens and their families as a momentous achievement."
"Each year, the great privilege of citizenship is attainable for many individuals seeking greater opportunity, prosperity, and security as newly entrusted members of society," Bars said. "If willing to honor our system of laws and adhere to its faithful execution, our government has made a promise to aspiring Americans that their dream can -- and will -- one day become a reality."