Abdel Wahab Alaussos will get to vote in November after all.
To win that right, he and a co-plaintiff filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration over its delay and cancellation of formal naturalization ceremonies for them and 2,200 other immigrants in the Philadelphia region who had achieved all but the last, official step of becoming U.S. citizens.
The suit was voluntarily dismissed on Tuesday, after the Philadelphia Field Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services opted to quickly naturalize all of them.
“They’re elated. They’re thrilled. They’re so happy to be U.S. citizens,” said lawyer Trina Realmuto of the National Immigration Litigation Alliance, a Massachusetts advocate that helped lead the suit.
Alaussos, of Glenside, and Maria Campbell Davis, of Philadelphia, both lawful permanent residents, filed the suit in June in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against USCIS and other federal agencies. They said that while the initial, pandemic-driven postponement of their oaths of allegiance was understandable, it had gone on too long.
They wanted USCIS to conduct naturalizations by Sept. 28 — three weeks before Oct. 19, the last day on which Pennsylvanians can register to vote in the November election. The suit noted that Congress empowered USCIS and the federal courts to provide for immediate administrative naturalizations in special circumstances, such as a pandemic.
“We’re pleased the government took the lawsuit seriously, and prioritized the naturalization of permanent residents who have been waiting in some cases for many years to become U.S. citizens,” said Realmuto, who had been prepared to seek an emergency court order. “We’re hoping that other USCIS offices do the same thing.”
The resolution of the Philadelphia suit does not affect naturalizations by other USCIS offices around the country.
The local oaths were administered in person during socially distanced ceremonies in mid-July, according to lawyers involved in the case.
USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins in Washington said Wednesday that “since reopening our offices to the public and resuming in-person services on June 4, our top priority has been to resume naturalization ceremonies.” Those events “are now shorter to limit exposure to those in attendance,” she said, but “all legally required portions of the ceremony take place.”
Those potential 2,202 new voters might not seem like a lot. But their addition comes mere months before the November presidential election, in which a purple Pennsylvania is likely to again play a crucial role. Donald Trump won the state by less than a percentage point in 2016.
From 2017 to 2018, the number of immigrants in Pennsylvania who will be able to vote in November surged 7.9%, to 465,395, according to New American Economy (NAE), a bipartisan, business-focused research organization in New York. Pennsylvania added about 34,000 immigrant voters during that year, not many fewer than the 44,000 votes by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton.
“It’s important for me to vote in the next presidential election because this would be a special moment in my life to start practicing my constitutional rights in a great democratic country,” Alaussos said when the suit was filed.
He came to America from Syria, and co-plaintiff Campbell Davis is originally from Jamaica.
In a nation where only 60% of eligible voters go to the polls and where the president actively sows doubt about the integrity of the election system, the right to cast a ballot means everything to them — “a fundamental privilege of U.S. citizenship,” they said in the suit.
Their oaths were delayed by the coronavirus shutdown of USCIS, and then by slowdowns as the agency reopened. Furloughs that could eliminate two-thirds of USCIS’ workforce, about 13,400 employees nationwide, were scheduled to begin on Aug. 3 but now have been postponed until the end of the month.
The agency says it needs $1.2 billion in emergency cash from Congress to replace dramatic losses in immigration filing and petition fees, caused by the pandemic and economic crises.
Alaussos was approved for naturalization in March but was never scheduled for an oath ceremony. The delay kept him separated from his wife and children, who are in Turkey. As a U.S. citizen, he could immediately apply for a visa for his wife.
Campbell Davis was interviewed for naturalization in January and was set to take the oath on March 19. But the ceremony was canceled and not rescheduled, the suit said. That meant she was unable to petition for her Jamaican sons to immigrate to the United States.
Today an estimated 13.2 million foreign-born permanent residents live in the United States. Most of them qualified for a green card — named for its traditional hue — because they are the family member of a citizen, an employee of a U.S. company, or a refugee or asylum-seeker granted protection in this country. Green-card holders can live and work here indefinitely, but cannot vote in federal elections, or in most state and local balloting.
Before the outbreak, the suit said, the USCIS Philadelphia office naturalized about 420 people a week. The office shuttered operations on March 18, then reopened June 4 to hold smaller, socially distanced, safety-compliant oath ceremonies. Now, the suit said, only about 75 new citizens are sworn in weekly.
“Our clients are ecstatic that they no longer have to worry whether they will be left in limbo because of the pandemic,” said Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, which worked on the Philadelphia lawsuit. “We appreciate that USCIS and the District Court immediately took action to ensure that over 2,200 people were able to complete the process of becoming U.S. citizens.”