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Waiting to take the Oath: Experts and Lawmakers Discuss COVID-19 and Virtual Naturalization Ceremonies

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A recording of the call is available here.

Earlier today, immigrant advocates, lawmakers, and stakeholders gathered on a press call to discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on naturalization proceedings and how the push to hold virtual ceremonies will impact communities across the country.  The HEROES Act, which recently passed the House, would allow for virtual naturalization ceremonies, but passage by the Senate of this measure or any other measure to get naturalization ceremonies up and running again is uncertain.

Democracy will be another casualty of the pandemic if thousands of immigrants who have earned the right to vote will be denied because of stalled immigration proceedings. Virtual naturalization ceremonies and other alternatives offer an opportunity to continue to fulfill the promises of citizenship to those who have patiently worked and waited for their status to be finalized. Experts recognize that extraordinary circumstances call for radical adjustments to the way we conduct naturalization ceremonies.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Diocese of Miami, said, “According to DHS’s analysis of 2018 Census data, 69 percent of all immigrants in the labor force and 74 percent of undocumented workers are essential infrastructure workers, compared to 65 percent of the native-born labor force. Immigrants work at high rates in essential jobs that keep Americans safe, healthy, and fed — especially in these distressed states. For example, immigrants comprise 16 percent of all healthcare workers in the United States, and 33 percent of health care sector workers in New York State. These same workers will prove “essential” to the US economic recovery.” 

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, Former Congressman Representing Florida’s 26th District, said, “Authorized immigrants in good standing with the law and who have met all requirements should not have to wait unnecessarily to be welcomed into the American family. Our government should move quickly to naturalize legal residents who have earned their voice in our democracy.”

Carsten Keiffer, green card holder, aspiring US citizen and Lieutenant/Paramedic, Tavares (FL) Fire Department, said, “In August I applied for my citizenship and was scheduled to have my interview on April 1st, with a possible ceremony on April 2nd. My application was put on hold for an unknown amount of time. My concern is that my green card expires on June 30, and with the offices not planned to open, and with hundreds of thousands of people in line, am I going to lose everything if I don’t get either an extension or a green card or my citizenship taken care of before the 30th?…My duty is to be a citizen by the end of the year and to have participated not only in the voting, but also in the draws for jury duty and all the other responsibilities that are being part of an American citizen.”

Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch and former USCIS Chief Counsel, said, “To be clear, the law is not as stringent as USCIS suggests and there is legal room for USCIS to make appropriate accommodations for remote oath ceremonies.  But it takes will and interest to do so.  All around the government, agencies have made bold accommodations in response to COVID-19.  And, under the Trump administration, DHS has not been shy to stretch immigration law to fit its immigration policy priorities, even when many courts and legal scholars disagree with their legal justification. Here, the law leaves room for USCIS to maneuver and make appropriate accommodations that should be high priority for any administration.”

Eric Cohen, Executive Director, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said, “The IRLC commends the U.S. House of Representatives for including permission for the administration of virtual oaths in the HEROS Act, and we hope that Democratic and Republican Senators will continue working in a bipartisan fashion to keep this provision in the final Senate package next month. While it is critically important for congress to act and good news that the USCIS recently began resuming some selective in-person ceremonies, the USCIS needs to expand its remote capabilities in order to reach more than 100,000 people who are awaiting naturalization. This is particularly critical for the elderly and immunocompromised and others who cannot safely attend in-person ceremonies. School teachers like my wife, have figured out how to use technology to reach students, and there’s no good reason why CIS cannot do the same to serve their customers. The federal government’s position is akin to telling graduating high school or college seniors that they cannot have their duly earned diplomas and degrees due to the inability to safely hold a graduation ceremony. This is illogical and completely unsupported by law or decades of USCIS precedent.”