By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008 11:00 AM
Federal judges in some parts of the United States are delaying the swearing-in of new citizens, apparently so that courts can keep millions of dollars in naturalization fees paid by immigrants, according to a new government report and immigration analysts.
In one of the nation's busiest courts, a judge's delay caused nearly 2,000 people to not receive the oath in time to register for November's general election, according to the ombudsman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Michael Dougherty, in a 13-page report posted on his office's internet site yesterday.
The conclusion adds a new twist to longstanding complaints that applicants for citizenship face long waits, poor service and different treatment from U.S. immigration authorities depending on which office handles their application. While USCIS has made big gains in clearing massive backlogs since summer 2007, including working with the FBI to speed up security background checks, the new report cites a new bottleneck.
While generally "federal courts are very responsive" to USCIS requests for naturalization ceremonies, Dougherty reported "that court officials denied USCIS the opportunity to naturalize persons in time to vote in the recent general elections" and "otherwise engaged in conduct inconsistent with the letter or the spirit" of the nation's immigration law.
In the most dramatic case, the report stated that immigration officials asked a U.S. district judge this summer to schedule more ceremonies or to allow the agency to administer the oath itself to new citizens itself, but was denied.
A USCIS district director was told the court already had "done more than its share" in swearing-in new citizens, Dougherty's office reported.
Dougherty did not name the judge, except to say the situation arose in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Detroit, the four U.S. cities where courts retain exclusive jurisdiction over naturalization cases.
"Courts that choose to assert exclusive authority to naturalize new citizens should also embrace a customer service ethic that recognizes the singular importance of oath ceremonies," Dougherty said in a press release issued by his office's parent Homeland Security Department.
The ombudsman report noted without elaboration that courts receive $14.09 per oath administered, and that USCIS allocated $8.7 million last year for this purpose. But the report added that USCIS officials "are very reliant on the cooperation of court officials" to meet naturalization goals, citing their "substantial power" and "a lack of parity" with immigration officials.
Prakash Khatri, who was Dougherty's predecessor until earlier this year, said fee revenue is an incentive for judges to perform oath ceremonies themselves instead of allowing the agency to handle them.
"In many areas of the country, judges, the judiciary has held USCIS hostage for a court fee that these jurisdictions are not giving up," Khatri said. People wait for months after their naturalization applications are approved, he said, "only to find that the delay is a direct result of judges not scheduling naturalization ceremonies."
A spokesman for the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, which supports the federal judiciary, did not respond immediately to a request to comment on the DHS press release and report. In testimony to Congress in 1991, federal judges said they wished to keep jurisdiction over citizenship oath ceremonies to preserve the sensitivity and solemnity of the event.
The USCIS ombudsman recommended that the agency and the courts work together to set rules for how each side handles oath ceremonies "to ensure a consistent customer service ethic that safeguards the significance of the event for new citizens."
USCIS has struggled with huge backlogs of applications in the past but has been making progress.
In April, USCIS and the FBI reached agreement on how to handle and pay for security background checks for immigration applicants. By September, the agencies cut a backlog of 275,000 immigration cases pending name checks against FBI records to 60,000, with a goal by June of handling all name checks within 90 days.
USCIS also reported catching up with a surge of 1.4 million naturalization applications in 2007, nearly double the previous year, a spike caused partly by a steep hike in fees, citizenship drives by Latino organizations and a national enforcement crackdown.
This fall, the agency reported naturalizing more than 1 million citizens, with about 475,000 applications pending for more than nine months, 192,000 more than 18 months, and 118,000 more than two years, Dougherty reported. USCIS said the average processing time as of October was 8.8 months and set a goal of five months by next October.