Published: Sept. 12, 2019

People applying for U.S. citizenship have seen application wait times double since 2016, according to a new report from the Colorado State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) prepared in part by University of Colorado Law School faculty and students. 

The increased wait times are contributing to a backlog of more than 700,000 naturalization applications, impacting applicants’ civil rights, including their ability to vote in the 2020 election, according to the committee’s report. The report draws on committee research and a hearing it held at Colorado Law in February.

Ming Hsu Chen, a Colorado Law associate professor and faculty director of the school’s Immigration and Citizenship Law Program, served as project director and contributed to the report, along with several of her Colorado Law students. 

"Naturalizing is an important step in America, and impediments on the ability to naturalize have negative consequences for civil rights, voting rights and the democratic process. That is a key concern for the state advisory committee and the commission," Chen said. "Yet naturalization is about more than elections. It is about civic engagement and belonging in America."

U.S. immigration officials have had a backlog of naturalization applications before. Historically, they occur partly because applications rise ahead of election years. However, Chen said the backlog last cleared in 2006 and the present backlog is unprecedented in size and still growing. Colorado’s backlog growth, with 9,325 applications in the queue, is one of the worst in the country.

Nationally, the committee found processing times have jumped from an average 5.6 months in 2016 to 10.1 months in early 2019. 

Wait times vary by U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) field offices around the country, but the Denver Field Office, for example, has an average wait of 10 months and wait times can range from 9.5 months to 20 months. USCIS is mandated by statute to decide on applications with 120 days.

Wait times could be even longer than the numbers suggest. An American Immigration Lawyers Association survey found roughly 45% of applicants at the Denver Field Office experienced processing times longer than published times. A potential contributor: about 77% of survey respondents reported an increased rate of Requests for Evidence following initial naturalization interviews. 

The committee report also pointed to several recent policy changes that might be causing delays, such as increased background check requirements for military naturalizations.

"There is a pattern of rising naturalization applications preceding elections. One striking thing we found is that naturalization applications, at least in Colorado, have returned to pre-election levels," said Chen. "But the processing times and backlogs are still very high."

The Colorado State Advisory Committee, of which Chen is a member, recommends USCIS look at new policies and technologies to streamline their processes, while maintaining standards. They also recommend Congress hold USCIS accountable to the 120-day processing timeline.

Further Reading

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story cited the U.S. naturalization application backlog clearing in 2015. The backlog last cleared in 2006.