Immigrants Eager to Vote Obeyed All the Rules. It Didn’t Pay.

They stayed up late studying for civics tests. They went to classes, paid hefty fees and underwent background checks.

During the last year, nearly a million legal immigrants applied to become American citizens, many of them hoping to take the oath of citizenship in time to cast their first ballots on Nov. 8 in a presidential race where immigration has been fiercely debated.

But as the number of aspiring citizens grew this year, the backlog at the federal agency that approves naturalizations swelled. With the agency now reporting that it takes up to seven months to complete the process, Obama administration officials are reluctantly admitting that many — perhaps most — of the immigrants in the backlog will not become citizens in time to vote.

“I’ve been checking my mail every day, but I haven’t heard anything,” said Francisca Fiero, 73, a Mexican immigrant in Las Vegas. “I’m starting to get very worried.”

Ms. Fiero, who has had a green card for a decade, applied in January and gave her fingerprints in June. Since then, nothing. The voter registration deadline in Nevada is Oct. 18.

In the last year almost 940,000 legal immigrants applied to become citizens, a 23 percent surge over the previous year. As of June 30, more than 520,000 applications were waiting to be examined, a pileup that increased steadily since last year.

Immigration officials “anticipated that there would be a spike in applications this year, but the increase has exceeded expectations,” said Jeffrey T. Carter, a spokesman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of naturalizations.

The official figures revealing the backlog, published in late September, came as a shock to immigrant groups that put on a nationwide push early this year to help eligible immigrants to naturalize.

By JULIA PRESTON for The New York Times
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