Abdel Wahab Alaussos so badly wants to vote in the presidential election that he’s suing the Trump administration for the right to do it.
The Glenside man, who came to America from Syria, is among hundreds of area immigrants whose work and determination have led them to the brink of U.S. citizenship. But that final step was delayed first by the coronavirus-driven shutdown of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the oath of allegiance, and now by slowdowns as the agency reopens. Soon, furloughs could eliminate two-thirds of USCIS’ workforce.
“It’s important for me to be a U.S. citizen because it’s the only country where I can unite all my family in one place, enjoy the best human and constitutional rights in the world, live the rest of my life in the greatest country in the world, and guarantee a good future for my children,” Alaussos said. 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.”
He and his co-plaintiff, Maria Campbell Davis of Philadelphia, originally from Jamaica, are asking the U.S. District Court in Eastern Pennsylvania to order the government to quickly administer the oath to everyone in their position, while there’s still time to register to vote. In a country 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 state in the suit.
A USCIS spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Alaussos and Campbell Davis, both lawful permanent residents, filed the class-action lawsuit against USCIS and other federal agencies and officials, saying that while the initial delay was understandable, it now has gone on too long. They want USCIS to use all available means and technologies — from virtual, online interactions to live, drive-up appearances — to conduct naturalizations by Sept. 28. That’s three weeks before Oct. 19, the last day on which Pennsylvanians can register to vote in the November election.
Before the outbreak, the suit said, the USCIS Philadelphia field office naturalized about 420 people a week. The office shut down operations on March 18, then reopened June 4 to hold smaller, socially distanced, safety-compliant oath ceremonies. Now, only about 75 new citizens are sworn in weekly — an 80% drop.
Even that lower number is threatened, as USCIS sends furlough notices to an estimated 13,400 employees nationwide; they would begin leaving their jobs on Aug. 3. The National Association of Immigration Judges says that exodus “will have dire consequences across the U.S. immigration system.”
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.
At least 181 workers in Pennsylvania could be furloughed, according to Rep. Dwight Evans. He is among six state members of Congress who asked the House leadership to work to provide $1.5 billion in emergency funding during the next two years.
“Anytime folks are furloughed, there aren’t enough bodies to do the work,” said lawyer Trina Realmuto of the National Immigration Litigation Alliance, a Massachusetts advocate that represents Davis and Alaussos. “Are naturalization ceremonies going to take a backseat? Or will the agency prioritize them, given the importance of the right to vote in our democracy?”
Congress has empowered USCIS and the federal court to provide for immediate administrative naturalizations, she noted in the lawsuit.
USCIS’s closing and limited reopening is also generating uncertainty and anxiety among foreign workers who depend on employment visas.
For instance, Maria, a 30-something Philadelphia woman from Central America, is employed at a local college, helping to create an online-and-hybrid classroom model amid the pandemic. Her job will end in August unless something changes.
Maria, who spoke on condition of being identified only by her first name, said USCIS has been unable to set an appointment to gather her biometrics, which include fingerprints, photograph, and signature.
Until that happens, she won’t get her work permit.
“A lot of people who are in my position in tech, they’re going to be losing their jobs,” she said.
Today, an estimated 13.2 million foreign-born, permanent residents live in the United States, most of whom 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 do not enjoy all rights of citizenship. They cannot vote in federal elections, nor in most state and local balloting.
About nine million are eligible to become naturalized citizens. To do so, they must live in the U.S. for at least five years, then pass one test on English proficiency and another on American history and government.
The number of immigrants in Pennsylvania who will be able to vote in November surged 7.9% in a year to 465,395, according to New American Economy (NAE), a bipartisan, business-focused research organization in New York. NAE gathered data on all 50 states to determine the growth or decline of “eligible immigrant voters” — that is, newly naturalized American citizens over the age of 18.
Pennsylvania added about 34,000 immigrant voters from 2017 to 2018, not much less than the 44,000 votes by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state. New Jersey, which went decisively for Clinton, added 60,769.
Nationally, the number of potential new immigrant voters increased by more than 700,000 in the same period, for a total of 21.4 million, the study found.
Alaussos was approved for naturalization in March but was never scheduled for an oath ceremony. The delay keeps 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 means she’s unable to petition for her Jamaican sons to immigrate to the U.S.
“A much larger, expedited effort is needed to accommodate the hundreds of plaintiffs [whose] paths to U.S. citizenship have been delayed,” the lawsuit stated, “to ensure that they are not needlessly harmed by any additional delays.”