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That Mountain at the INS

A backlog of mountainous proportions is building at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, with applications for U.S. citizenship rising at unprecedented rates. Today, eligible immigrants who have waited the required five years before submitting their applications have to wait about two more years before they can become citizens. Admitting its inability to expedite the process, the INS has asked Congress for $200 million to expand its staff and equipment and to improve the integrity of the process. This would come from money already paid into the system by prospective citizens. Congress could help streamline a process that is onerous and in many ways unfair.

Back in 1990, roughly 234,000 legal immigrants filed for citizenship. This year, an estimated 1.8 million immigrants could become citizens. The debate continues in Congress on the issue of how many and what type of immigrants America should welcome. But there is no question about the pressure in the pipeline.

The explosive growth can be attributed to many causes, among them the large number of people, perhaps as many as 3 million, who were granted amnesty through the Immigration Act of 1986, which changed their status to legal.

Subsequently, Proposition 187 on the 1994 ballot and other political measures perceived as political attacks on immigrants led many legal residents to seek citizenship to defend their rights in the political arena.

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The INS was processing applications at a snail’s pace before these developments, and on average it took about two years to complete the process. In 1995 the INS staff was boosted and its facilities expanded in a program called Citizenship USA, which helped the INS strengthen its ties with community organizations and streamline the citizenship processing.

Good intentions, however, fell afoul of the INS’ obsolete technology and undertrained staff. The naturalization process suffered. Some applicants were not subjected to the required fingerprint checks, and a number with criminal records who should have been excluded wound up being granted citizenship.

Now, the length of the processing period for citizenship has soared again to about two years. There is no reason why the waiting period should be so long. Congress should understand that without new staff and resources the problem could grow even worse. Delay is a dream denied to legal immigrants.


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