A Waiting Game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The complex process by which immigrants become U.S. citizens has virtually come full circle during the 1990s.

The system careened wildly from a moderate demand early in the decade to unprecedented numbers of new citizens in the mid-1990s to what is now a record backlog of almost 2 million applicants nationwide on the new-citizen waiting list--one quarter of them in Southern California.

During that span, applying for citizenship has gone from what many considered an intimidating and inaccessible matter to a relatively user-friendly system to its current incarnation--a delay-plagued procedure that is once again scaring off would-be applicants, even as federal officials strive to complete a new make-over.

Whereas the benefits of citizenship were being conferred on a previously unknown scale just two years ago, enabling masses of immigrants to become full-fledged Americans and to exercise their right to vote, many are now caught in an ever-tightening bottleneck, growing increasingly frustrated.

The abrupt shifts have left many community activists skeptical about whether the heady days of just two years ago--when a record number of immigrants took the citizenship oath--will ever return.

"We were really on the right track there for a while with citizenship," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino think tank that has studied the issue extensively. "But in the past 10 years, we've taken two steps forward and three steps backwards."

INS Officials Promise Reforms

Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, insists that the system will be back on track in a year or so, better than ever. The INS points to additional funds and staffing, along with improved automation and new safeguards instituted after congressional Republicans assailed the program for lax procedures.

"We don't want anyone not to apply for citizenship because it's a cumbersome process or it takes too long," said Rosemary Melville, the INS' deputy district director in Los Angeles. "The good news is, things are getting better."

For instance, the agency's Los Angeles district has scheduled 38,000 citizenship interviews for next month--more than three times the number conducted in October 1997. But other problems persist: The agency still hasn't figured out how to meet the heavy demand for fingerprint services from citizenship applicants, especially in Los Angeles.

Moreover, some of the INS' optimism hinges on the prospective availability of $171 million in additional funding for next year. That proposal still needs the approval of skeptical Republican lawmakers, who are dismissive of the agency's ability to improve a system they say went awry.

"The INS has come in at the eleventh hour, asking for more money from Congress," complained Allen Kaye, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House immigration subcommittee. "That is not the mark of an agency that is handling the citizenship crisis. . . . There are still terrible problems in the system."

With so many obstacles, many doubt that the momentum of 1996 can ever be regained, despite the continuing interest among immigrants in securing citizenship.

Among other factors, the cost of applying for citizenship is more than doubling in January, from $95 to $225, a fact that will discourage many of the working poor who made up the bulk of the recent new Americans.

In addition, Congress has modified social service cuts affecting noncitizens, which were a hallmark of the 1996 welfare overhaul. The changes are easing the pressure on many, especially the elderly, to become U.S. citizens.

Overall, some see the loss of a historic opportunity to fully integrate a large population of legal immigrants into U.S. society.

"There are enough people out there to sustain massive citizenship drives for years to come, but I don't think we'll see that," said Greg Simons, citizenship coordinator for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "Once the process corrects itself, which eventually it will, I think we'll see more people filing for citizenship again. But not in the numbers we did."

Welfare Changes Spurred Increase

Until the beginning of the 1990s, citizenship remained a kind of terra incognita into which relatively few immigrants, especially those from Mexico, opted to venture. The Los Angeles area, with its swelling population of recent arrivals from Mexico and Central America, had a particularly low rate of naturalization, as the procedure is known.

Along with dreading the process, many immigrants were hesitant to cut formal links with their homelands--despite years, sometimes decades, of residence in the United States, and in many cases the presence of U.S.-born children. An oft-repeated rumor was that new citizens had to stomp on a Mexican flag to show their new allegiance.

Perceptions began to change, however, as the decade progressed. A wave of perceived anti-immigrant sentiment helped push record numbers to naturalize as new Americans. Proposition 187, the 1994 California ballot initiative that sought to cut benefits for illegal immigrants and speed their deportation, drove many longtime legal residents toward citizenship. The 1996 welfare law, which federalized many of the changes sought by Proposition 187, sent even more to the citizenship queues.

The Los Angeles area has become the country's leading source of new citizens, eclipsing New York and signaling the region's emergence as the nation's new-immigrant capital.

A reborn Americanization movement--reminiscent of mass assimilation efforts undertaken during the last great wave of immigration early in the 20th century--seemed to have arisen by 1996. That's when more than 1 million people were naturalized as part of the Clinton administration's "Citizenship USA" initiative. The number more than doubled the previous record, set just the year before.

Teams of volunteers canvassed immigrant neighborhoods from Los Angeles to New York, Miami to Seattle, encouraging multitudes to become citizens.

Elated community leaders sensed that something new and important was happening: the enfranchisement of a vast wave of immigrants who had heretofore remained distant from U.S. civic life.

"There was this great sense of pride," recalled Simons, of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. "We lived through a very historic time that they'll be talking about 100 years from now, like they talked about immigrants coming through Ellis Island at the beginning of the century."

New Americans flexed their newfound clout at the polls in 1996, helping Clinton to victory and boosting Democrats to surprising victories in the California Legislature and elsewhere. In the view of many immigrants, the GOP couldn't escape its link with anti-immigrant politics, embodied by Gov. Pete Wilson, champion of Proposition 187.

But the euphoria among immigrant advocates proved short-lived, smothered amid a cloud of scandal that engulfed the citizenship program.

Soon after the November 1996 elections, House Republicans exposed a shoddy system in which tens of thousands of people were naturalized without the required background checks for criminal records.

When the shouting in Congress was over, it turned out that only a tiny minority--perhaps fewer than 400 of the more than 1 million who took the oath in 1996--were ultimately found to be statutorily ineligible for citizenship because of serious criminal convictions.

But the system's obvious flaws and sloppiness made it difficult to defend. Democrats soon ran scared from Citizenship USA.

"There have been no mainstream political champions of naturalization," lamented Pachon of the Rivera Policy Institute. "No one is out there on the forefront, except for community-based organizations and ethnic-based organizations."

A chastened INS brought in outside auditors and experts to redesign the entire process. Henceforth, no one would become a citizen before undergoing a full criminal background check, its centerpiece being an FBI check of applicants' fingerprints. Though admittedly ill-prepared, INS officials were directed by Congress to take over fingerprinting duties, replacing hundreds of small shops nationwide that had provided the service. The task was overwhelming.

Backlogs and delays grew.

Process Can Take Two Years

A process that in the fall of 1996 took six months from filing an application to being sworn in may now take two years or more. Once again, confusion is rampant. The number of new citizens sworn in nationwide plunged 50% last year.

Meantime, almost 500,000 people languish in the citizenship queue in Southern California alone. Some have waited for three years or more, consigned to what INS Commissioner Meissner herself has described as a "black hole." No one should have to wait more than six months, Meissner agrees.

In Los Angeles, 200,000 long-stalled applicant files have been trucked to an expansive sixth-floor office in the Federal Building downtown, to be dissected by INS staffers. Many of the files have been gathering dust for years in assorted INS offices. Most affected applicants have waited so long that, through no fault of their own, their security checks have lapsed and they must have their fingerprints taken anew--"re-fingerprinting," in INS parlance. The FBI, it turns out, discards fingerprints submitted for background checks after 15 months.

This year, citizenship applications are plunging by almost 50% nationwide--the first such decline after six years of unprecedented growth.

There are many reasons for the drop-off, but it is clear that growing frustration is part of the picture. Too many would-be citizens have seen friends and loved ones waiting without word on their cases.

"I've heard nothing," said Joaquin Antonio Flores, a 50-year-old native of El Salvador who has lived in the United States since 1970.

Flores filed for citizenship almost four years ago and was interviewed by the INS in June 1995. He submitted new fingerprints in January, but there has been no word since. His wife and adult son have since become citizens. Flores yearns to vote.

"I have lived more than half of my life in this country," noted Flores, a building maintenance worker in Los Angeles. "I feel American."

The result of such uncertainty, many community activists and others believe, is that naturalization has once again become the mysterious, intimidating void that it was at the beginning of the decade.

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