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Citizenship backlog to affect voting in primaries

From the Associated Press

Millions of people who applied for naturalization and other immigration benefits to beat a midsummer fee increase are caught in a paperwork pileup that threatens the chance for some to become U.S. citizens in time to vote in next year’s presidential election.

The application backlog is so large that Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, is months behind schedule in returning receipts for checks written to cover fees -- an early step in the process.

“Were we caught off guard by the volume? Let’s just say it was anticipated it would increase. It was not anticipated it would increase by that much,” Director Emilio Gonzalez said.

The immigration agency would not say how many applications it has received. The American Immigration Lawyers Assn., a private legal advocacy group, said it was told by agency officials that 3.5 million applications had come in over a two-month period. The agency projected a workload of 3.2 million applications for fiscal 2008 and 2009.

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Gonzalez ordered his staff to give priority to naturalizations, but some applicants will miss voting in primaries, which begin in January.

“I really want to target the elections,” Gonzalez said. “I really want to get as many people out there to vote as possible.”

The onslaught of applications has led some files to be sent back with errors or mistakenly rejected, and others seem lost in the system, applicants and attorneys say. Service centers in Nebraska and Texas have the longest delays.

Some groups that have been waging a national campaign to help 1 million legal residents become citizens and vote in 2008 fear the pileup will hurt their efforts.

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The application crush was worsened by another flood of about 300,000 applications from skilled workers wanting to become legal residents. The agency initially said it wouldn’t accept the visa applications but changed its mind amid public outrage.

The agency is posting progress updates on its website. Files are being sent to Vermont and California for processing.

At least 110 immigration workers have volunteered to help process applications and are being sent to Texas and Nebraska, said agency spokesman Chris Bentley.


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