As naturalization applications piled up under President Barack Obama, surging 64 percent in his final year in office, activists held their tongues, saying they were keeping an eye on it but weren’t overly concerned.
On Monday, however, they attacked, accusing President Trump and his aides of a clandestine plan to delay deserving immigrants’ citizenship, preventing them from voting in this year’s elections and perhaps threatening chances for some to cast ballots in 2020 as well.
“On a political level, it is increasingly difficult for many of us to avoid the conclusion that there is some other motivation for these excessive delays,” said Janet Murguia, president of Unidos, a large Hispanic activist group.
She and other activists, joined by more than 50 Democrats in Congress, announced a push to defeat what they call Mr. Trump’s “second wall,” elevating the citizenship issue to be on par with their fight to stop the president from fulfilling his plans for more fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Citizenship has generally been one area of agreement in an otherwise deeply divisive immigration debate. All sides say naturalization is a worthy goal for those who are in the country legally.
It unlocks some benefits and many rights — including eligibility to vote in federal elections.
That makes the pile of applications waiting for approval a major political issue.
Although there is no evidence of a slowdown, immigrant rights groups and their allies in Congress say the numbers have to be evidence of mischief.
At the end of 2015, fewer than 390,000 cases were awaiting a decision. A year later, near the end of the Obama administration, that number was more than 635,000.
It leaped to more than 780,000 cases by June 2017, but the Trump administration has made headway since then and cut the number of pending cases to fewer than 730,000 by the end of last year.
The government has not reported any numbers this year.
“Shame on this administration for putting these delays in place,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who led a letter with more than 50 other members of Congress demanding answers.
The lawmakers said it can take 16 months to get a citizenship application approved in some of USCIS’s regional offices. The agency was aiming to make a decision in each case in five or six months.
Mr. Gutierrez also pointed specifically to the applications still waiting for approval in Florida and Pennsylvania, both of which are likely to be important in the 2020 presidential election.
“Does it seem an accident to anybody that those two states have large backlogs?” he said.
Michael Bars, a spokesman for the agency, said nothing has changed in the processing. He said the number of people approved each year “has remained virtually unchanged.”
“What we’re looking at is a dishonest and desperate attempt by open borders advocates to undermine the work of Homeland Security officials, law enforcement and the administration to protect the integrity of our immigration system and uphold the rule of law,” Mr. Bars said.
The Washington Times has been tracking the increase in naturalization cases for several years and during the Obama administration asked groups about the increasing backlog.
Few, including some of those now attacking Mr. Trump, expressed concern at the time.
In fact, efforts under Mr. Trump have begun to reduce the backlog in the latest data and USCIS is clearing cases at a faster rate than the Obama administration.
More than 850,000 naturalization applications were decided last year. By contrast, the Obama administration cleared fewer than 800,000 in 2016, down from 815,000 in 2015 and only slightly more than 715,000 in 2014.
There may be a reason outside of politics for the backlog.
Homeland Security’s inspector general found that USCIS bungled a transition to a new computer system and was approving people for citizenship before their background checks were finished. The department has put the automated system on hold while it works out the errors, denting the completion rate.
Still, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who joined Mr. Gutierrez in leading the letter demanding answers, said the administration should have been prepared for a surge in applications, knowing that the president’s immigration policies could increase interest in naturalization.
“It’s hard to believe there isn’t a political motivation for the administration to prevent applicants for citizenship from actually completing their applications,” she said. “We’re not asking for anything that hasn’t happened in other years — just allocate those resources and process the applications in an orderly fashion. Don’t put them on the shelf to save your own skin, Mr. President.”