Congress Needs to Fix Backlog That Silenced 300,000 Potential Immigrant Voters by Passing the Citizenship Act

Congress Needs to Fix Backlog That Silenced 300,000 Potential Immigrant Voters by Passing the Citizenship Act

The Trump administration's citizenship backlog cheated 300,000 immigrants who would have been eligible to vote out of exercising their rights this last election. President Joe Biden supported the US Citizenship Act of 2021 on his first day in office, but Congress must ratify the bill. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)

By Jin-Ya Huang

January 29, 2021

The Trump administration cheated 300,000 potential voters out of exercising their right in this last election. Congress must fix it, now. 

After graduating from the University of Texas at Dallas, I saved up enough money to fly to Paris with friends to celebrate. But my post-college jaunt quickly soured. 

I was an American green card holder, traveling on my Taiwanese passport. This confused the customs agents in France, who handcuffed me and promptly escorted me on a flight back to the States. The ordeal was mortifying; I was a person of color being treated as a second-class citizen because I lacked that little blue book. 

Flying home, I spilled my story to the passenger beside me. My parents naturalized after coming to America but I’d waited, feeling neither American nor fully Taiwanese. I belonged to nowhere. My seatmate said his wife was a Moroccan immigrant, so he understood my dilemma. When we landed in Boston, he even drove me to the US Embassy to get an expedited travel visa. One of the worst days of my life ended with an incredible display of kindness. This was America, I realized, the place I wanted to call home. Soon after, I took my oath to protect the US Constitution. 

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Becoming a citizen was huge for me. Initially, my parents felt beholden to the relatives who sponsored our visas. Only after they naturalized in the early 1990s did they feel free to stop working for them, move away, and start their own business in Dallas. Once I became a citizen, I also exercised my newfound freedom: getting my US passport and registering to vote. 

I had renewed confidence in my future, and I returned to school to study photography and graphic design. Today, I’m an interdisciplinary artist who’s worked for brands like Neiman Marcus and Fossil. I also run Break Bread, Break Borders, a social impact that helps refugee women from war-torn countries earn a living while sharing their culture through food and storytelling. Citizenship—even the promise of it—has given them similar confidence and independence. It has allowed them to build productive lives and invest in the communities here. 

Unfortunately, nearly 300,000 people who should have been eligible to vote in the 2020 elections—including the Georgia Senate runoffs—couldn’t. This is serious, given the extraordinarily slim margins in states with high immigrant populations. 

This includes Georgia, as well as Arizona, Florida and Texas. These voters could have had a fundamental impact on choosing our future leaders. But the Biden administration has a tough road. They will have to fix pandemic-related naturalization delays and tackle Trump-era mismanagement of USCIS. They must also change policy: In December, the Trump administration rolled out a new citizenship exam that’s biased and harder to pass. Biden’s US Citizenship Act of 2021, which he sent to Congress on his first day in office, demonstrates his commitment to a new, more welcoming era. Now Congress must take action. 

Read More: Immigrants Rights Activist Says Changes to Citizenship Test Meant to Discourage Immigration

If they don’t, long-term US residents who have worked hard, paid taxes, and taken the many required steps to become citizens will remain in limbo. When people argue immigrants should come here “the right way,” this is the group they’re talking about. And yet, the federal government is letting them flounder. 

Clearing up the citizenship backlog is not only overdue—it would be a boom for the country. An Urban Institute study of 21 US cities found if eligible immigrants naturalized, their individual earnings would increase on average by nearly 9 percent, boosting the GDP by $5.7 billion and adding $2 billion in additional tax dollars in those cities. That’s crucial to getting us out of the recession. Immigrants who gain citizenship also have higher earnings than non-citizens and achieve the same financial success as native-born Americans, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And they are already contributing at every level—filling jobs in key industries, like health care and STEM. Not to mention the 3.2 million immigrant entrepreneurs who employ nearly 8 million people, according to New American Economy. 

Unfortunately, marginalized groups, including Asian Americans, have long been ignored by politicians; Asian Americans are the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters, but a recent survey showed more than half of our voting bloc had “little or no contact” from either party ahead of the election. 

Read More: Trump Says People Should Immigrate to the U.S. Legally. He’s Made It Nearly Impossible.

While the majority of us ultimately cast our ballots for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, President Trump gained ground in immigrant neighborhoods, including dozens of Democratic strongholds like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Miami. As people of color voting groups continue to grow, we will be the ones to tip the scale in favor of one candidate or another. Democrats must show us why they deserve our vote. Helping immigrants who are stuck in the naturalization backlog become citizens of the country they’ve long called home is a good first step.

Getting that little blue passport book was like getting my own superhero cape: the power to travel securely, to vote, to influence the laws and policies that affect us. As an American, I feel a responsibility to use this superpower for the greater good and treat everyone who struggles for equity and dignity with the same grace and generosity I received. It’s the least I can do in exchange for the privilege of being American. 

So many immigrants in the citizenship backlog feel the same way. They’ve earned these privileges. It’s unjust to make them wait any longer.


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