Feds grapple with backlog for citizenship

The Arizona Republic — May 15, 2008 — Page A1

Immigration officials in Phoenix are churning out record numbers of new U.S. citizens, with as many as 2,000 to be sworn in this month alone.

The push is part of a national effort to chip away at a mountain of backlogged applications, including many thousands from immigrants who had hoped to vote in November. Despite the increase in naturalizations, however, critics say the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is not working fast enough, so many immigrants won't become citizens in time to vote.

"Instead of people being able to participate in democracy, they are being caught up in the red tape of bureaucracy," said Monica Sandschafer, head organizer of Arizona ACORN, a grass-roots organization that holds citizenship classes.

This month, the Phoenix CIS office plans to grant citizenship to 2,000 legal immigrants, more than twice the usual 800 for May, officials said.

About 1,600 of those immigrants will take the citizenship oath next Thursday at two large naturalization ceremonies at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, the officials said.

On the same day, immigration officials will swear in 18,000 new U.S. citizens in Los Angeles. More mega-ceremonies are in the works nationwide, including several in Phoenix that could produce as many as 4,000 new U.S. citizens in a single day.

Yearning to vote

Charles Harrell, acting district director of the CIS office in Phoenix, said the immigration service is responding to a surge of applications that poured in last year.

Citizenship applications spike every four years preceding a presidential election, but the record surge last year was triggered by various immigration-related factors, including a 70 percent fee increase that prompted thousands of immigrants to apply before the increase took effect Aug. 1.

Many immigrants also applied in hopes of being able to vote for a new president in the November general election. Others were prompted by citizenship drives launched after the collapse of immigration reform in Congress.

Still others applied out of fear of being swept up in stepped-up immigration crackdowns.

"Even though I am a legal resident, I am afraid they could arrest me and detain me. They couldn't do that if I were a citizen," said Maria Isabel Rodriguez, 42, an immigrant from Mexico.

She applied for citizenship last July and waited 11 months for a citizenship interview, which will take place on June 12.

A legal resident is eligible to apply for citizenship five years after getting his or her green card. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for citizenship.

Backlog raises outcry

In Phoenix, 15,976 immigrants applied for citizenship during fiscal 2007, which ended Sept. 30, up 64 percent from 2006.

Nationally, 1.4 million applications poured in in 2007, almost twice as many as during the previous year.

The flood of citizenship applications created a huge backlog. By the end of December, more than 1 million immigrants were waiting for their applications to be processed, and the CIS said it could take up to 18 months to plow through the backlog, compared with the usual six-month wait.
The long waits prompted a national outcry from immigrants and advocacy groups. Some accused the Bush administration of intentionally dragging its feet to prevent thousands of immigrants from becoming citizens in time to potentially swingthe presidential election and other races in favor of Democrats.

The CIS rejected those accusations and has increased overtime and hired scores of new officers to help process applications more quickly.

The Phoenix office has added 12 adjudication officers since February and plans to add 10 more next month. The additions will give the office 39 total, up from 17 at the start of the year, Harrell said.

As a result, Phoenix is on pace to create more U.S. citizens this year than any time since 1995, the year Harrell started in Phoenix.

Data shows the immigration service in Phoenix has sworn in 5,994 new citizens during the first seven months of this fiscal year, up 80 percent from the first seven months of the previous year.

Nationally, the immigration service has sworn in 387,901 new citizens during the first six months of this fiscal year, up 34 percent from the 288,987 sworn in during the first six months of the previous year.

Even at that pace, it is doubtful that everyone who applied last year will become a citizen in time to vote, said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the CIS in San Francisco.

A 12-month wait

The current waiting time in Phoenix is 12 months. The immigration service is trying to reduce the wait to nine months by the end of September.

"It's nice of people to want to vote, but we are not in the business of making new voters, but making new citizens," Rummery said. "We want to do it right." That includes making sure all applicants pass an FBI background check.

Claude Piller, Arizona director of Mi Familia Vota and Ya Es La Hora, praised the immigration service for taking steps to reduce the backlog.

The two groups have been conducting citizenship drives aimed at boosting Latino voting power in Arizona.

Boosting voting power

But Piller said many immigrants who applied will be blocked from voting because the immigration service waited too long. Only U.S. citizens can vote, and Oct. 6 is the deadline in Arizona to register for the Nov. 4 election.

Frank Sharry of America's Voice, an immigrant advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said new U.S. citizens have the potential to make a statement at the ballot box.

He said many immigrants applying for citizenship have relatives who are undocumented and would be unlikely to "pull a lever with an 'R' next to it," because most measures cracking down on illegal immigrants have come from Republicans.

The Republican Party in Arizona, however, is also reaching out to new immigrant voters, said Tony Reinhard, a spokesman.

The majority of new immigrant voters are Hispanic, and although some may be turned off by immigration hard-liners, many also "fall into the Republican mold."

"In large part, these voters agree with many Republican values," said Reinhard, including safe neighborhoods, school choice and centralized families.  

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