The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has not been conducting in-person interviews and oath ceremonies for immigrants seeking to become naturalized citizens since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result, legal experts say thousands of people may not be naturalized in time for the U.S. 2020 presidential election.
In the meantime, a former refugee from Kenya continues his efforts to help people applying for U.S. citizenship.
Mohamed Malim is a Somali American whose family fled Somalia during the country's civil war. He was born in a refugee camp in Kenya and moved to the U.S. in 1999 when he was 4 years old.
Malim is the founder of Epimonia, a fashion accessory and apparel company whose profits help refugees and immigrants. He has donated to organizations such as the International Institute of Minnesota, USA for UNHCR, Dream Refugee Mentorship Program and Refugees4Refugees.
The company, though an LLC and not a nonprofit, is a certified B Corporation, in which purpose and profit balance each other. Recently, Epimonia created the citizenship bracelet; 100 percent of its profits helps refugees file for U.S. citizenship.
“I wanted to create a citizenship bracelet where I could support refugees and immigrants to become U.S. citizens, and that was my initial goal,” Malim told VOA. “And obviously, the red color was a revisitation of the American flag. I wanted to help cover U.S. citizenship application fees for immigrants and refugees. So basically, for every citizenship bracelet you buy, it (helps) cover their application fee,” he added.
The bracelet is handmade by refugees in Minnesota out of recycled life vests worn by refugees during their journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
Above all, Malim said, it is “made with love.”
To become naturalized in the U.S., a candidate must have been a green card holder, also known as a permanent resident, for three to five years, or meet certain military service requirements.
The naturalization fee for a U.S. citizenship application is $725, which includes $85 for biometric services and $640 for application processing.
According to the USCIS, 834,000 new citizens were naturalized in fiscal year 2019, an 11-year high in new oaths of citizenship. It also reported that the number of applications pending for naturalizations was reduced by 12 percent.
That number is about to change under the COVID-19 crisis.
Boundless Immigration, a Seattle-based firm that helps people navigate America’s immigration process, released a report showing that “nationwide, well over 100,000 naturalization applicants are already stuck in limbo,” and thousands more “piling up month by month, these citizens-in-waiting will likely be unable to vote in the 2020 election.”
The USCIS website shows the average processing time to be 7.6 months, as of February 2020.
Boundless Immigration estimates that these processing times “are almost sure to keep rising, because the government has not kept pace with the volume of incoming applications,” adding that the overall naturalization process (before COVID-19) was from 12 to 17.5 months.
The process, however, can be shorter, depending on where the applicant lives.
Boundless Immigration estimates that for each day the USCIS is closed, about 2,100 immigrants will run out of time to naturalize and register to vote.
“USCIS field offices around the United States handle naturalization applications, and the median processing time — from filing, all the way to the oath ceremony — varies widely, ranging from 3.7 months (in Cleveland) to 15.8 months (in Seattle). Considering that the naturalization process for all immigrants effectively ground to a halt on March 18, this means that immigrants seeking naturalization in Seattle, more often than not, had to file their applications almost two years before the election to become eligible to vote,” according to the Boundless Immigration report.
Immigration advocate groups such as the Niskanen Center have called on the USCIS to host remote citizenship ceremonies.
But a USCIS spokesperson told VOA “the statutory language mandated by Congress contains certain requirements that are logistically difficult for USCIS to administer naturalization oaths virtually or telephonically.”
The agency is still processing petitions and applications for immigration benefits that do not require an in-person interview, and it will automatically schedule naturalization ceremonies once in-person services are resumed.
“Where feasible, USCIS may conduct small naturalization ceremonies, both administrative and judicial, where proper precautions can occur. For example, the San Antonio Field Office is scheduled to conduct several naturalization ceremonies from May 15-21,” a USCIS official wrote in an email to VOA.
A USCIS spokesperson said officials will provide further updates as the situation develops and will continue to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
In the meantime, Malim continues his efforts to help immigrants apply for the U.S. naturalization process. Epimonia's first year in business made about $40,000 in sales.
In its short time, the company has paid numerous citizenship application fees and provided refugee students with college scholarships.
Epimonia, Malim said, is derived from the Greek word epimoní, which means perseverance.
“Having every bracelet with a purpose, that's my initial idea. Just (want to) make as much (of an) impact as I can in my community,” Malim said.