Citizenship application backlog 'skyrocketed' under Trump, report finds

The backlog of pending applications for immigrants legally in the country attempting to become U.S. citizens has "skyrocketed" under President Donald Trump, according to a new report from an immigrant rights organization.

There were nearly 730,000 pending naturalization applications as of the end of last year, a more than 87 percent increase since 2015 under President Barack Obama, according to the new report from the National Partnership for New Americans.

"The Trump admin has built a second wall that prevents legal immigrants in the U.S. from becoming voting U.S. citizens," Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, told NBC News.

He said the backlog at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services means current processing rates have reached as high as 20 months. Last year, over 925,000 people applied for U.S. citizenship, according to the report.

"They may be waiting for as much of 20 months after submitting a 21-page application, paid the $730 fee, submitted their fingerprints for a security a check and then sat and waited to take an exam," he said.

As of Dec. 31, 2015, under Obama, the backlog was 388,832, according to the report.

"This is either absolute gross incompetence affecting close to a million legal immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens or it is an intentional second wall that is designed to slow the pace at which lawfully present immigrants can become voters," he said.

The report also found that certain states saw "enormous spikes" in denials of citizenship applications in the last quarter, noting changes in Alabama, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Utah.

From Oct. 1 2017 to the end of December, the backlog increased in at least 19 states and territories, including Alabama, Colorado, Washington D.C., Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin, according to the report.

The states with the largest increase in pending applications over the last fiscal year included Utah with an increase of more than 53 percent, Texas with an increase of over 50 percent and Washington with over 46 percent, according to the report.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not immediately respond to request for comment about the report's findings.

The group is set to announce the report's findings later Monday at a news teleconference with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, D-Illinois, and other immigrant rights groups.

The members of Congress will also be announcing a congressional sign-on letter asking the director of USCIS to explain the backlogs.

The backlog was denying potential citizens their right to vote, and also left some at risk for potential deportation under Trump's policies while their applications are pending, said Gutiérrez.

"The rules have changed, legal permanent residency does not protect you from deportation under Donald Trump," he said. "People want to participate in the democratic process, they also want to protect themselves," he said.

Gutiérrez said he and Lofgren had already sent the sign-on letter and would call for congressional hearings and legal action to address the backlog.

Hoyt said the advocates were also working with Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a mayoral sign-on letter. Sign-on letters are used by lawmakers to come together and express a view on a policy or political matter. He added that the group was planning to file a Freedom of Information Act request looking for internal communications and numbers regarding the backlog.

Under Obama, said Hoyt, USCIS did face a higher backlog after he was first elected, but officials worked to curb that backlog to about 8 or 9 months.

Hoyt said his advocacy group has been tracking the backlog of citizenship applications for years and had never seen numbers like this.

He noted that while the backlog is ongoing, USCIS has launched an office focusing on identifying Americans suspected to have used fraudulent means to get their citizenship — and then strip them of it.

USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna told The Associated Press the agency is hiring dozens of lawyers and immigration officers to review the cases, looking for cases of immigrants who were ordered deported and then used fake identities to later obtain green cards and eventually citizenship.

"We finally have a process in place to get to the bottom of all these bad cases and start denaturalizing people who should not have been naturalized in the first place," Cissna said. "What we're looking at, when you boil it all down, is potentially a few thousand cases."

Hoyt said the move was poor use of resources with the current backlog.

"They're not paying attention to their core responsibility of processing people in a timely manner, instead they're on a witch hunt to try to denaturalize citizens who have been here for over 20 years," said Hoyt.