In a year when the government has bolstered enforcement, backed curbing legal immigration and rescinded a program that protects undocumented youth from deportation, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are applying for citizenship to protect themselves from removal and gain the right to vote, reports the New York Times. Naturalization applications generally spike during presidential cycles and fall after an election. But this year, the volume of applications is on track to surpass that of 2016–the first time in 20 years that applications have not slipped after a presidential election. “The draw of U.S. citizenship becomes more powerful when you have the political and policy environment that you have right now,” said Rosalind Gold, senior policy director at the Naleo Educational Fund, a national bipartisan Latino group.
About 8.8 million people are eligible to become American citizens, meaning they have been lawful permanent residents, or had a green card, for at least five years. In the first three quarters of the 2017 fiscal year, 783,330 people filed applications, compared with the 725,925 who filed during the same months a year earlier. The current figure is well on pace to surpass the 971,242 who applied in the 2016 fiscal year. With the surge of applications, the processing backlog has ballooned. There were 708,638 pending applications at the end of June, a steady rise from 522,565 at the end of the 2016 fiscal year and 291,833 in 2010. The average wait time has doubled, to 8.6 months from four months a few years ago, with applicants in cities like Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas and Miami waiting a year or longer.