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USCIS furlough threats endanger citizenship for El Paso applicant eager to vote

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A looming furlough of thousands of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees could delay naturalizations for new citizens and prevent them from voting in the November election.

“Well right now I’m supposedly one step away from becoming a U.S. citizen,” said Martha, an immigrant in El Paso who is in the final stage of the naturalization process. She asked that her last name not be used because she fears repercussions for speaking out.  “I’m very excited, very excited because this is opening a door to so many possibilities and one of the most important ones is of course the right to vote.” 

The federal agency that processes citizenship applications, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has reported it will have to furlough about 13,400 employees on Aug. 30. 

The agency was depending on a COVID-19 stimulus relief package to provide an emergency bailout but Congress has been at a stalemate. No stimulus package has been approved and the Senate left last week with no date to return to Capitol Hill until September, days after USCIS is expected to furlough staff. 

“The furloughs are very scary,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “The furloughs are something that we think about often with the citizenship processes and all processes. How this is going to impact our work. How this is going to impact the lives of the people we serve. It’s very, very scary and we don’t know how long it will last and I don’t think we fully understand the severity.”

USCIS is largely funded through fees charged to people seeking entry into the United States. But those numbers have declined during the Trump administration and Rivas said there has been a “deterioration of services” at USCIS over the last few years. 

“You start to see more delay, you start to see a lot of policy shifts. Policy shifts that start to make me think it’s more complicated and harder for folks,” Rivas said. 

USCIS is under increasing pressure from Republicans and Democrats to delay the furlough. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas signed a bipartisan letter to USCIS on Friday saying the agency has enough money to continue current operations through the end of the year, giving Congress more time to address funding gaps. 

Martha has been in the country for 30 years as a lawful permanent resident but the last year has spurred her to apply for citizenship so that she can exercise the right to vote. 

Martha talks about why it’s important to her to vote in this election.

“I think we’re living through an absolutely critical moment and for that reason it’s important to have this opportunity to do it. I think we each have plenty of reason to go out and do it,” Martha said in Spanish. 

To vote in the Nov. 3, 2020 elections Texas voters must be registered by Oct. 5. Applications must be postmarked or delivered to the Voter Registrar’s office 30 days before the election day. 

That means Martha has just over 45 days left to both receive U.S. citizenship and register to vote in this year’s presidential elections. She said she has faith in the system to earn citizenship and vote during this “worrying time.” 

Martha talks about her urgency to vote.

“The worst thing one can do is just sit and wait. Nothing is going to happen if we stand by. I think right now is the moment to, as they say, grab the bull by the horns and decide for ourselves the change we want to see with our vote,” Martha said.  

To register to vote in Texas visit VoteTexas.org

Cover photo: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in East El Paso. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Claudia Tristán

Claudia Tristán previously worked as a television reporter for five years across Western Texas and New Mexico. She has experience in both English and Spanish television news. As a journalist, Tristán was most recently covered immigration in El Paso. Tristán left journalism to work in government and on political campaigns. She joined the office of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Later she worked on Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaign before joining Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx's reelection campaign. Tristán has centered her journalism career around immigration and politics to better keep communities informed.

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