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Coronavirus Delays US Citizenship Process for Thousands

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The coronavirus crisis could be preventing thousands of people from completing the final steps to receive U.S. citizenship, activist groups say.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the agency that processes citizenship requests. It suspended its in-person services on March 18 to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. A message on the agency's website says the suspension will remain in place until at least June 4.

The process of becoming an American citizen is known as "naturalization." The final step in this process is to take an oath of loyalty to the country at an official ceremony.

Wendy De Los Santos is a 38-year-old medical assistant who lives outside Boston, Massachusetts. She came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. She has passed all naturalization requirements except for the final step of publicly declaring the oath. In the middle of March, officials said they would tell her in a few weeks when she could complete the final requirement.

She is still waiting for that information.

"It is causing some anxiety. It would be nice to finish the process, even if it has to be done virtually," De Los Santos told The Associated Press. She noted that her daughter was able to continue taking school classes through a video conferencing system. "We're here. What's the problem?"

While many parts of American life have been able to keep operating online, the citizenship process has come to a halt.

A few small naturalization ceremonies have taken place in some areas. But critics say the government has not been good at communicating to people when the final step will happen.

Citizenship groups have warned that the delays could limit the rights of thousands of voters in the country's elections later this year.

Time limits for election registration are nearing in a number of states. Individuals seeking to vote must be citizens when they register or risk facing criminal charges or possible deportation, the groups say.

"This is yet another attempt to politicize access to voting," Kristen Clarke told the AP. She is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Clarke added that the final step for citizens should not be used as a way to keep people meeting all other requirements from voting.

The deputy director of policy for USCIS, Joseph Edlow, said the agency is holding more ceremonies as it becomes better at finding new ways to operate.

He said that federal law requires people to take their oath "publicly" and "in person." Edlow noted that some parts of the ceremony cannot be done virtually, such as collecting permanent resident cards and issuing proof of citizenship documents.

USCIS has not said exactly how many people have taken part in ceremonies since the coronavirus crisis began. But it said at least 85 have been planned through June 4 in 12 American cities.

The agency also has not said how many people are waiting to complete the final citizenship step. But activist groups have estimated it could easily be in the hundreds of thousands.

Earlier this month in Phoenix, Arizona, about 30 people a day took part in small naturalization ceremonies outside the USCIS office. The citizenship seekers wore face coverings as they waved small American flags while waiting to declare the oath.

And in York, Pennsylvania, officials began completing oath ceremonies outside the local courthouse in the middle of May. About six people can take part in each ceremony.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported on this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

oathn. a formal promise

anxietyn. worry or concern

virtuallyadv. using computer and internet technology to conduct activities normally carried out in person

deportationn. the forced removal of a person from a country

accessn. a way of getting near, at or to something or someone

deputyn. someone who has the second most important job in an organization

residentn. someone who lives in a particular place

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