Some immigrants seeking citizenship in the Seattle area may soon have to travel hours away, to Portland or Yakima, for their naturalization interviews after a new policy was implemented at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The federal government says the national policy redirecting applicants from one office to another aims to decrease wait times and more evenly spread growing caseloads among cities.

Immigrants applying for citizenship who live south of Seattle — including Renton, Des Moines, Federal Way and Auburn — will be interviewed and adjudicated at the agency’s Portland office, while those from east of Seattle — such as Bellevue and Issaquah — will go to Yakima, according to information shared with Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

In addition, applicants from Kent and the Kitsap Peninsula have been redirected to Portland, the city says.

Immigrant advocates fear the new policy redirecting some applicants from Seattle’s office could impose an undue burden on people seeking citizenship.

“We are talking about people having to travel more than three hours, potentially,” said Malou Chávez, deputy director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Among the most vulnerable are the elderly, those lacking transportation and those who won’t be able to travel with a translator, she said.

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Chávez said applicants are feeling left in the dark about the future of their cases and for how long the new policy might be in place. The new rules make the process more expensive and time-consuming, she added, and may delay people’s choice to apply altogether.

Some applicants may need to travel to offices far from home more than once because oath ceremonies of those granted citizenship take place in the same city where they interviewed, said Meghan Kelly-Stallings, a citizenship program and policy specialist for Seattle.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Jessica Collins said in an email that the new policy is intended “to decrease geographic disparities in processing times across the country” and “restore balance” across field offices. She said the goal of the policy is to reduce processing times and improve service.

Seattle-based Boundless, which provides technical and legal assistance to immigrants, ranked Portland’s office as the 10th best for those seeking citizenship among 86 naturalization field offices open in 2017. Yakima ranked 20th best and Seattle’s came in at 75th.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates a naturalization-processing time of 15.5 to 17.5 months at the Seattle office, compared with six to 10 months at the Portland office and 10 to 18 months at the Yakima office. Data published by the agency indicates a rise in average processing times nationally, from 5.6 months in 2016, to 8.1 in 2017 and to 10.3 in 2018. Boundless suggests that longer waits are in part the result of a growing application backlog, and that devoting more resources to that backlog could quickly and significantly reduce its size.

Kelly-Stallings said the federal government didn’t consult with Seattle-area community members or groups ahead of announcing the policy change and did not say why more immigration officers couldn’t be sent to Seattle to help with the caseload, rather than have applicants travel long distances.

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“It was kind of announced once the decision had already been made,” she said. According to community partners, interviews scheduled for as soon as July 22 in Seattle have been redirected to other offices, she added.

In a presentation to a City Council committee Wednesday morning, the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs emphasized challenges applicants face under the Trump administration, describing a “second wall” posed by delayed and deterred applications.

“The impact on service providers … is that the cases are harder,” director Cuc Vu told the committee. “It takes longer to serve each client. It takes more legal expertise for individual cases. The threat to the programs that we provide is very real.”

The city has compiled resource sheets to help applicants find transportation and lodging if forced to travel to their naturalization interviews and is seeking tech partners to help develop a system for pairing up applicants and volunteer drivers, Kelly-Stallings said. The resource sheet for people traveling to Portland can be found here and to Yakima here.

Staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this report.