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Delays In Naturalization Ceremonies May Strip Thousands Of A Chance To Vote In 2020

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Thousands of people who were scheduled to become U.S. citizens in the last few months are now waiting to see if that will even happen this year. That's because naturalization ceremonies have been on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. This has been a setback for many immigrants who were hoping to vote in the 2020 presidential election. As part of our look at how the pandemic will affect voting, Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Elizabeth Hernandez moved to the U.S. from Mexico almost 30 years ago. And she says that in that time, she never really thought much about becoming a citizen until this year.

ELIZABETH HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

A LOPEZ: She says, "I want to vote for a president who will improve the country." Getting the right to vote is one of the main reasons immigrants seek to naturalize before big elections, says Mark Hugo Lopez with the Pew Research Center.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: A lot of that comes from not just immigrants themselves, but many organizations work to naturalize immigrants in order to set them up for participation in the upcoming presidential election.

A LOPEZ: Hernandez says she was one of those people who was convinced by a local group that it's important for her to vote this year, so she did all the paperwork and was set to have her naturalization ceremony on March 15. But then the coronavirus happened, and the ceremony was canceled.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

A LOPEZ: Hernandez says, "it made me sad." She says she was emotional because she was so close to having her ceremony, and now she doesn't know if that will happen anytime soon. Diego Iniguez-Lopez with the National Partnership for New Americans says U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, should hold virtual oath ceremonies.

DIEGO INIGUEZ-LOPEZ: It's not unprecedented, and it is an option.

A LOPEZ: USCIS officials said in a statement that there are requirements mandated by Congress that make it, quote, "logistically difficult for USCIS to administer naturalization notes virtually or telephonically." Iniguez-Lopez says an estimated 860,000 immigrants were set to be naturalized this year alone, and now that's in jeopardy.

INIGUEZ-LOPEZ: And these represent rising numbers of new American voters that have the power to sway the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections, midterm elections and governorships and state legislature.

A LOPEZ: And that's partly because immigrants make up a big chunk of the eligible voting population. Mark Hugo Lopez with the Pew Research Center says 1 out of every 10 eligible voters in the U.S. will be a naturalized citizen in 2020. And among key demographic like Asians and Latinos, those voters are more likely to turn out.

M LOPEZ: Most people who make the decision to become a citizen are, oftentimes, also somewhat more engaged than others in terms of wanting to get involved.

A LOPEZ: And an important step actually happens in those naturalization ceremonies. Dr. Annie Johnson Benifield is with the League of Women Voters in Houston. One of the main things she does with the league is register voters at those oath ceremonies.

ANNIE JOHNSON BENIFIELD: It makes you very proud to be an American and proud that you can be there on the spot to register them to vote at that moment after they are duly sworn in.

A LOPEZ: And Benifield says she's able to register about 90% of the people in those ceremonies that day, which is unlike any other voter registration event. And Benifield says there were supposed to be 16 ceremonies in the Houston area this year.

JOHNSON BENIFIELD: And the year is not over, so we have no idea how they are going to start structuring and scheduling them for the rest of the year.

A LOPEZ: Benifield says she hopes government officials come up with a plan soon that allows immigrants to safely become citizens. And she says she hopes they also figure out a way to make sure groups like hers can register them to vote this year.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KINOBE'S "BRING IT ON HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.