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Immigrants waiting longer for US citizenship as backlog builds

FILE: Immigrants pose with U.S citizenship certificates in front of a large U.S. flag after a naturalization ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

A spike in U.S. citizenship applications before and after the November 2016 election has led to a backlog of more than 708,000 pending requests nationwide, with typical wait times for applicants doubling since last year.

The typical processing time for U.S. citizenship applicants used to be about 5 to 7 months. But that's changed. Federal data shows the average wait is now 10 months in Los Angeles County, for example.

Mario Solis of South Los Angeles applied to become a citizen about a year ago after more than 20 years in the United States. Solis, who is from El Salvador and a legal U.S. resident, submitted his citizenship application along with his fingerprints.

He said he's still waiting to receive an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials. So far, there's been no word.

"Nothing, absolutely nothing," Solis said in Spanish. "It's been since November and I'm still waiting for my interview."

Providers of immigration services have noticed the longer processing time.

“Slowly, after the election, that has been increasing pretty steadily — where it went from 6 to 7 [months], 7 to 8," said Karla Cortez, who manages citizenship services for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "And now I was checking as recently as yesterday, and we are at about 10 months."

There are several factors contributing to the delays: Immigration officials received 971,242 naturalization applications in fiscal year 2016, a 24 percent spike over the year before. 

As applications have gone up, so has the backlog. Pending applications have grown from 399,397 in the third quarter of fiscal year 2015 to 708,638 in the third quarter this year, the most recent data available.

Applications began spiking prior to the November 2016 election, in part because some legal residents wary of the Trump administration's harsh immigration rhetoric took steps to protect themselves, say legal service providers.

"Many people who were lawful permanent residents are saying, 'I am no longer safe in this country as a lawful permanent resident. I have to become a citizen,'" said Los Angeles immigration attorney Alma Rosa Nieto.

Nieto said she's noticed more vetting of applicants for U.S. citizenship under the Trump administration. Then there's a much longer application form, one put in place in the Obama era.

"If an officer had to review 10 applications that are 10 pages long, and now they are reviewing 10 applications that are 20 pages long, and they have to do more vetting, of course it is going to take more time," Nieto said.

Others, including Solis, wanted to vote. Solis declined to state his political preference, but he said casting a ballot was one of the main reasons he applied.

"If you are not a citizen, you can't vote," said Solis, 69. "You can't exercise that right. We all have an obligation to do it, regardless of who the candidates are." 

Solis also said he has been in the U.S. a long time, and his wife and adult son became naturalized citizens last year. He said the process for them took no longer than six months.

Immigrant advocates said the Trump administration is not dedicating sufficient resources to fix the backlog. Cortez, with CHIRLA, said the group has sent letters to officials seeking to address the problem. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials said in an email that they’re trying to do that.

"To address the increased processing times, USCIS is allocating additional employee overtime and recruiting to fill vacancies across the country," a statement from the agency read.