Why Not A Virtual Naturalization Oath Ceremony?

by Cristina A. Godinez, Esq.

There is a growing clamor for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to provide for virtual naturalization oath-taking ceremonies. House Democrats have proposed including provisions that would “empower USCIS to conduct secure remote naturalization oath ceremonies,” in the next coronavirus relief package.

Since March 18 up to at least June 4, the USCIS temporarily suspended routine in-person services to help slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). This led to office closures and the cancellation of oath ceremonies for thousands of naturalization applicants who are technically new Americans but for the fact that they have yet to take their Oath of Allegiance.

Although USCIS has been able to perform small naturalization ceremonies for a limited number of applicants where feasible, it has not been clear whether it will reopen completely by June 4 to reschedule oath ceremonies on a wider scale.

An estimated 860,000 people were scheduled to become U.S. citizens this year, according to an estimate by the National Partnership of New Americans, a coalition of state, federal and local organizations that helps naturalized citizens register to vote. USCIS processes around 66,000 naturalizations a month, and immigration advocates fear that hundreds of thousands of applicants may not become citizens this year in time to vote in the 2020 general election.

The naturalization oath ceremony is more than just a formality. It is not the passing of the English language or civics test, nor the signing of the N-400 naturalization form or copy of the oath that completes the naturalization process. Under the law, a person is not a United States citizen until s/he takes the oath.

Under the law, a person is not a United States citizen until s/he takes the oath.

The implications of being unable to fulfill the oath requirement after undergoing a long, and sometimes rough, naturalization process is tremendous for many Americans-in-waiting. Until they take their oath, they do not know whether they can participate in the elections this fall, or whether they can get past the lingering insecurity of being a non-citizen at a time when the government is explicitly anti-immigrant. Some practical benefits that flow from becoming a U.S. citizen remain out of reach, such as the ability to sponsor close family members for immigration, better access to social benefits, or the flexibility to travel abroad for extended periods of time.

While it helps to have legislation that expressly provides for remote or virtual oath ceremonies, the law as it stands arguably provides sufficient latitude for the USCIS to adjust its procedures to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic situation.

The authority to naturalize rests upon the Secretary of Homeland Security and the USCIS has the power to perform acts to implement such authority.

The authority to naturalize rests upon the Secretary of Homeland Security and the USCIS has the power to perform acts to implement such authority.

USCIS field offices conduct administrative ceremonies at regular intervals as frequently as is necessary. In some instances, USCIS offices (e.g. Newark, NJ) may conduct daily ceremonies where the examination, adjudication, and the oath take place on the same day.

The administrative oath ceremony is a standardized experience prescribed by federal regulations and implemented uniformly by USCIS nationwide. It includes all required video and musical elements such as viewing the video “Faces of America;” the singing of the national anthem; the welcome remarks from the Master of Ceremonies (often the head of the USCIS field office); the “Call of Countries” (acknowledging the applicants’ country of origin); administration of the Oath of Allegiance; keynote remarks from USCIS leadership, the Presidential congratulatory remarks; the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance; concluding remarks; and the presentation of the Certificate of Naturalization by USCIS officers.

It will not be difficult to imagine that most of the essential elements of the oath ceremony program can be carried out remotely through virtual conference platforms like Zoom or Webex.

Turning over documents such as the return of the permanent resident (green) card to the USCIS and the presentation of the Certificate of Naturalization may be securely delivered by U.S. postal service.

Practical considerations aside, does USCIS have the authority to establish procedures for virtual oath ceremonies? Federal regulations suggest that such authority exists.

Practical considerations aside, does USCIS have the authority to establish procedures for virtual oath ceremonies? Federal regulations suggest that such authority exists.

For instance, although an applicant must generally appear in person and take her oath in a public ceremony, the USCIS has the authority to excuse such appearance. USCIS may also grant the applicants’ requests to modify the text of the oath of allegiance in select circumstances or waive taking the oath altogether.

In addition, the USCIS District Director may also grant an expedited oath ceremony under special circumstances of a compelling or humanitarian nature such as a
serious illness of the applicant or a member of the applicant’s family; a permanent disability that prevents the applicant’s personal appearance; developmental disability or advanced age of the applicant that would make appearance at a scheduled ceremony improper; or urgent or compelling circumstances relating to travel or employment that warrants special consideration.

In a case where USCIS waives the oath requirement due to the applicant’s medical disability, USCIS may issue the certificate in person or by certified mail to the applicant or his or her legal guardian, surrogate, or designated representative.

The case for virtual oath-taking and related adjustments to the standard naturalization oath ceremony are not just for the benefit of would-be Americans. At a time when the economy needs a boost after being pummeled by the Covid-19 pandemic, studies suggest that there is a lot to be gained from ushering immigrants into U.S. citizenship.

House Democrats proposing a system of remote naturalizations argue that this could provide “long-term flexibility to the agency far beyond the duration of the pandemic” and could result in an economic boost for the country.

“Beyond this, naturalized citizens earn 44 percent more in annual employment income than their immigrant counterparts; income which contributes to the economic success of our communities, including through increased tax revenue which will be even more critical in the coming years,” the lawmakers argued.

(CRISTINA GODINEZ is an attorney practicing U.S. Immigration law in New York City for over 15 years. In addition to practicing all types of family-based immigration, she represents healthcare facilities and staffing agencies in the immigration cases of foreign healthcare workers. She is also staff attorney at a faith-based immigration legal services center where she works on humanitarian cases for low-income migrants.)

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