Immigration Agency Mired In Inefficiency

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007

Last June, U.S. immigration officials were presented a plan that supporters said could help slash waiting times for green cards from nearly three years to three months and save 1 million applicants more than a third of the 45 hours they could expect to spend in government lines.

It would also save about $350 million.

The response? No thanks.

Leaders of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rejected key changes because ending huge immigration backlogs nationwide would rob the agency of application and renewal fees that cover 20 percent of its $1.8 billion budget, according to the plan's author, agency ombudsman Prakash Khatri.

Current and former immigration officials dispute that, saying Khatri's plan, based on a successful pilot program in Dallas, would be unmanageable if expanded nationwide. Still, they acknowledge financial problems and say that modernization efforts have been delayed since 1999 by money shortages, inertia, increased security demands after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the disruptive launch of the Homeland Security Department.

As the nation debates whether, and how, to legalize as many as 12 million illegal immigrants living here, the agency that would spearhead the effort is confronting its reputation as a broken bureaucracy whose inefficiency encourages more illegal immigration and paradoxical disincentives to change.

Under the Senate's proposed immigration legislation, Citizenship and Immigration Services would vet applications and perform security checks for those illegal immigrants -- a surge that would be almost triple the agency's annual caseload of 5 million applications.

Each application could generate fines and fees of $1,000 to $5,000, a windfall of $10 billion to $15 billion over eight years, Homeland Security officials said. The money would dwarf revenue from a previously announced agency plan to increase fees on immigration and employment applications by 50 percent as early as next week, to raise $1 billion a year.

Former U.S. officials, watchdog groups and immigrant advocates warn that Citizenship and Immigration is ill-positioned to make the best use of the money. Instead, they say, Congress must change how it funds the 16,000-worker agency and provide tough oversight if the agency is to move past its legacy of shoddy service, years-long delays and susceptibility to fraud. Liberals and conservatives say relying on user fees to upgrade the agency is a recipe for disaster.

"If the USCIS fails once again to meet the challenge, the laws of supply and demand will overtake U.S. immigration laws," driving workers and employers to bypass the law, said James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Given the nation's history of weak enforcement at the border and against companies that hire illegal workers, Citizenship and Immigration's record as gatekeeper for legal immigrants often goes overlooked. Each year the agency, once known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, awards 1 million green cards, 700,000 naturalizations and 1 million temporary work permits.

Delays have plagued its efforts, however. After peaking at more than 5 million applications in 2003, the agency's backlog stood at 1.1 million last summer after a five-year, $500 million reduction effort. That includes 140,000 cases not awaiting action by another agency.

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