Thousands of applicants for U.S. citizenship have been waiting for well over a year for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to process their applications. But the problem isn’t the usual bureaucratic red tape. In this case, thousands of paper-based immigration records (known as “A-Files”) are locked in man-made caves that USCIS says it can’t access.

According to USCIS—which is responsible for processing citizenship applications—the A-Files of these citizenship applicants are stuck in the Federal Records Centers (FRCs) in Kansas City, Missouri. These facilities were built underground and are managed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The FRCs are now difficult to access because of COVID restrictions. But this wouldn’t even be an issue if the immigration agency had transitioned to electronic records long ago.

The NARA website says that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has categorized the COVID “transmission risk” at the FRCs as “high.” The FRCs were completely closed until recently. They are now open again but are operating at no more than 25 percent of normal staffing levels.

USCIS cannot process anyone’s citizenship application without access to their complete A-File. Because of COVID restrictions, USCIS says that the A-Files stored in the Kansas City FRCs are not readily obtainable. As a result, USCIS is not adjudicating those citizenship applications. In fact, any immigration-related application that requires an A-File currently stored in the Kansas City FRCs is now subject to enormous processing delays.

Based on reports from immigration lawyers, the affected applicants filed their citizenship applications with USCIS between March and June of 2020. Before the pandemic, citizenship applications took between 6 and 9 months to process, on average. The current delays caused by the problems at the FRCs have more than doubled those processing times.

On November 17, Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) sent a letter to President Biden and the head of NARA asking that the FRCs in Kansas City be fully reopened at 100 percent staffing capacity. In the letter, Budd notes that the Kansas City FRCs provided USCIS with roughly 62,000 A-files per month prior to the pandemic. As of mid-November, however, the FRCs were providing the agency with only 11,000 A-files per month.

USCIS says that, as of January 2022, it has more than 350,000 requests for A-Files pending with NARA (only some of which are related to citizenship applications).

The agency wouldn’t have this problem if not for the fact that it insists on maintaining paper files and even requires most immigration benefit applications to still be submitted on paper. It is long past time for the federal government to transition more fully to digitized records in immigration cases.

Immigrants nearing the end of their long journey to U.S. citizenship—who want to fully commit to American ideals and principles—should not be shut out of the system because the government has failed to create and maintain a proper system of records.