By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Facing a rapidly growing backlog of immigration cases, the Bush administration will grant permanent residency to tens of thousands of legal U.S. immigrants without first completing required background checks against the FBI's investigative files.
The change affects a large but unknown number of about 47,000 permanent residency, or green-card, applicants whose cases are otherwise complete but whose FBI checks have been pending for more than six months, U.S. officials said. Overall, about 44 percent of the 320,000 pending immigration name checks before the FBI -- including citizenship as well as green-card requests -- have waited more than six months.
The delays have been called "the most pervasive" processing problem in the U.S. immigration system, according to Prakash Khatri, the ombudsman of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The change, announced in an internal agency memorandum Feb. 4, follows years of criticism by Khatri, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, lawmakers and federal judges, who say that lengthy delays in FBI name checks serve neither national security nor immigrants, who in any case have been living in the United States for years while awaiting a decision.
Critics blame poor management and coordination at the FBI and USCIS, and the inefficient system by which the FBI keeps more than 86 million investigative files. About 90 percent of name checks are completed electronically within three months, but the rest can take years to finish through paper-based searches for any mention of an applicant's name in records stored in 265 locations nationwide.
Applicants already must clear automated checks against FBI and DHS fingerprint databases and consolidated federal law enforcement databases.
"This is a . . . step in the right direction for the government to see this name check has really been holding up thousands or tens of thousands of people unnecessarily," said Cecilia D. Wang, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's immigrants' rights project, which has tracked nine class-action lawsuits and thousands of individual suits filed by immigrants seeking faster processing.
Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which calls for stricter limits on immigration, said the shift reflects the government's ongoing efforts to run its immigration system "on the cheap."
"You end up with people waiting longer than they should, and getting approved when they shouldn't," Camarota said. "It's bad for crime prevention, national security and customer service."
Immigration officials expect the backlog to balloon within weeks. Last summer, before a well-publicized increase in application fees, the Department of Homeland Security saw a surge of 3 million applications for naturalization and other immigration benefits -- 60 percent more than it received for all of 2006. Those cases have just started to enter the FBI pipeline.
Under the new rules, USCIS will approve otherwise completed cases when the FBI has not performed its checks within 180 days. In the instances when negative information is found -- less than 1 percent of the time, according to the bureau -- green-card holders will be deported.
USCIS spokesman Christopher S. Bentley said the agency has long wrestled with how to streamline the effort. He said the change aligns its practices more closely with those of its sister agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which admits asylum applicants into the United States before FBI name checks are completed.
The decision "just seems like a very logical way to get people who deserve benefits in a very fair and timely manner without compromising national security or the integrity of the immigration system," Bentley said.
The change does not apply to citizenship applicants because green-card holders are more easily deported, whereas "revoking naturalization is a much more difficult thing to do," he said.
Representatives of the American Immigration Law Foundation, the ACLU and other immigrant advocates hailed the change. But they questioned why it excludes citizenship applicants, when they must have lived in the United States at least three years after becoming permanent residents.
"If they really believe people pose some risk to the United States, why would they want folks inside, waiting years and years to complete the same name check?" asked Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of a House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said beneficiaries of the change are already living in the United States and often are married to Americans. "The card has no impact at all on security, but it may have some impact in a positive way on their lives," she said. "It's not very hard to take away the green-card status if there's an error."
Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), who seeks tighter U.S. immigration controls, objected. "Do they revoke them if they blow up something?" he asked. "There is a reason why the system was put in to do these checks, and it's national security. It's scary that we've reached a point where we're waiving that national security requirement because the bureaucracy is not responding."
Congress has approved more money to speed the FBI name checks. Gregory Smith, head of the USCIS office that coordinates name checks with the FBI, said in an e-mail to his FBI counterpart that his agency will prioritize "a significant percentage" of $20 million in new funding to expedite naturalization cases -- such as hiring 221 FBI contractors -- but "existing resources should not be diverted" from green-card checks.
The USCIS memo and Smith's e-mail were filed by the government last Wednesday in a pending case brought by immigrants before U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. The memo was first reported Sunday by McClatchy Newspapers.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.