During the pandemic, innovative practices make naturalization assistance accessible to LPRs

2020 was supposed to be a banner year for naturalization. Eligible lawful permanent residents, or LPR’s, were expected to apply for naturalization in record numbers based on the upcoming presidential election, the threat of increased fees and elimination of most fee waivers, and an increasingly unfriendly immigration policy environment. Instead, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, the number of naturalization applications has declined significantly, by some measurements falling by almost 75 percent 1. In spite of these unprecedented challenges and obstacles, many legal immigration service providers continue to provide N-400 application assistance and help LPRs prepare for their naturalization interviews, while prioritizing and protecting the health and safety of their clients.

CLINIC’s affiliates, more than two dozen of them members of the New Americans Campaign, have shown considerable resiliency and adaption in their efforts to continue providing assistance. In many parts of the country, COVID-19 makes citizenship workshops and even individual in-person services impossible. Many organizations have turned to remote work, completing applications over the phone, or through video conferencing services such as Zoom and Facetime. Others are using more sophisticated systems like CitizenshipWorks, which provides a more comprehensive platform to guide practitioners and LPRs through the application process. While much of this technology is used to complete applications one-on-one, some legal service providers have successfully experimented with group application virtual workshops. These groups connect volunteers with LPRs and allow attorneys and accredited representative to move between private virtual rooms to offer assistance when needed.

Virtual review may not always be the best option for LPRs to receive application assistance. Tech literacy, access to technology and reliable internet present challenges for some people. To address these issues, some organizations are working to connect LPRs with someone that can help them learn the basics of using digital platforms or are providing these trainings themselves. Other organizations have entered into low-cost rental agreements with technology and internet service providers that allow them to lend tablets to LPRs for application completion.

For many legal immigration programs, meeting with new clients in-person is crucial to establishing trust, and in an environment where in-person services are not possible, this can make establishing a working report difficult. Organizations around the country have been holding virtual town hall meetings to provide their communities with vital information on the pandemic, health and financial services, changing immigration policies, naturalization, and other important topics for the health and well-being of community members. Often, these virtual town hall meetings are done in conjunction with other non-profits, individuals, or organizations that have credibility or standing in the community. During the pandemic, these town halls have served as an important first step in establishing that trust. The result has been an influx of clients that would normally be served in-office, and an opportunity for organizations to connect with individuals they might not otherwise reach.

The pandemic will continue to depress naturalization applications, but N-400 application assistance and the importance of naturalization must continue to be promoted with all it’s benefits for individuals, families, communities and the country. With an election outcome that is far from certain, the rights, privileges, and security that naturalization confers to immigrants is more important now than ever. Additionally, the increase in the fee for form N-400, from $640 to $1,170, will make applying for citizenship well outside the ability of many low-income LPRs.

Immigrant legal service providers need to continue to adopt virtual assistance models and innovate to provide services during the pandemic. Doing so quickly will allow as many N-400 applications as possible to be completed ahead of the implementation of these new fees. These innovations and experimentations with remote services will make naturalization assistance easier and more efficient in the long run.LPRS, especially those in remote areas of the country, will have increased accessibility the dream of U.S. citizenship.

1 Applications completed by New Americans Campaign (NAC) members declined by 73%, from 10,709 applications to 2,925 applications, when comparing Q2 2019 to Q2 2020. Letson, Sarah, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Aug. 7, 2020 , ‘NAC Data & Insight, NAC Partners & Site Leaders Meeting, Online Convening.