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Immigration Stagnation
Going by the book? Not so fast.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

FOR MOST people living in the United States, the amount of time and money wasted in bureaucratic Washington is a distressing but distant annoyance. For some, however, the inefficiencies cause daily hardship -- and harm U.S. interests in the process.

Just ask Shmul Kaplan, an 80-year-old amputee and Ukrainian immigrant whom The Post's Darryl Fears wrote about last month. Granted asylum in 1997, Mr. Kaplan has waited -- and waited -- for his naturalization papers to come through. After seven years of patience, he lost his Supplemental Security Income because he did not gain citizenship in time to retain federal benefits. He currently lives on $215 a month for rent and $140 in food stamps. Now lawyers are pursuing a class action lawsuit on behalf of the Shmul Kaplans in this country against a range of federal agencies complicit in delaying their citizenship applications and denying them benefits.

The Post's Spencer S. Hsu reported that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a successor to the much-maligned Immigration and Naturalization Service, is overwhelmed and has failed to pursue basic administrative and technical reforms. A recent congressional investigation revealed that immigration officers had lost track of 111,000 files. A report released this month by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general faults Citizenship and Immigration Services as remaining "entrenched in a cycle of continual planning, with limited progress toward achieving its long-term transformation goals."

Despite these difficulties, Homeland Security lists its progress on immigration services as an accomplishment of the past year, pointing out that it has eliminated its backlog of applications, which stood at 3.8 million in 2004. Not so the FBI, which checks the names of those applying for citizenship. If an applicant's name is too similar to that of someone on a federal watch list, the FBI runs a background investigation, a procedure that can take months.

The FBI admits that 100,000 background checks have sat uncompleted for a year or longer. The bureau insists that it is speeding its work and that the immigration agency can tag names for expedited service. There is, it seems, plenty of blame to go around.

America hardly encourages foreigners to enter and live in the country legally when simply processing their naturalization forms can take years. Citizenship and Immigration Services needs to cut its wait times by making a rapid transition to electronic forms and better organizing reform efforts. And the FBI must conduct background checks more efficiently. The roughly 6,000 disabled asylum seekers who, the lawsuit alleges, lost their benefits will be suffering in the meantime.

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