By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Federal judges in some parts of the United States have delayed the swearing-in of new citizens, keeping millions of dollars in fees that would otherwise go to immigration officials if they were allowed to administer the oaths instead, according to a new government report and immigration officials.
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, USCIS ombudsman Michael Dougherty said in a 13-page report released yesterday.
The finding adds a new twist to long-standing complaints that applicants for citizenship face long waits, poor service and different treatment depending on which immigration office handles their paperwork. While the USCIS has eased huge backlogs created in summer 2007, with steps such as speeding up FBI security background checks, the new bottleneck points to a turf battle with U.S. district courts.
Although "federal courts are very responsive" generally to USCIS requests for naturalization ceremonies, Dougherty reported, some "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 laws.
In the most dramatic case, immigration officials asked a U.S. district judge in the summer to schedule more ceremonies or allow the agency to administer the oath itself to new citizens, but the request was denied, the report said.
A USCIS district director was told that the court had "done more than its share" in swearing in new citizens, the report said.
Dougherty did not name the judge, saying only that the case arose in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Detroit, four of the 41 U.S. court districts 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 news release issued by his office's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. He said USCIS and the courts should set clear rules to speed up the process.
Courts have 45 days after USCIS approves a citizenship application to administer an oath of allegiance, and the agency reimburses them $14.09, out of fees paid by the applicant, for each oath they perform. But the agency can often administer the oaths more quickly and cheaply, saving the money for itself.
Still, USCIS officials "are very reliant on the cooperation of court officials" to meet naturalization targets, and they complain about "a lack of parity" in power, the report said.
Prakash Khatri, who was Dougherty's predecessor until February, said 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."
U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim of Minneapolis, who chairs a federal judiciary committee that oversees court administration, called the report's conclusion "ludicrous" and said its examples are unsubstantiated and in some cases "little more than rumor and innuendo."
"Certainly the courts will work very closely with USCIS, just as we have for years," Tunheim said. He added that courts send immigration fees to a judiciary general-fund account in Washington: "The idea that we're doing it for money seems to me ludicrous. None of us can pay much attention to all these transfers that go back and forth."
USCIS has made progress in clearing huge application backlogs. Since April, the agency and the FBI have cut the backlog of immigration cases pending security background checks from 275,000 to 60,000, with a goal by June of handling all name checks against FBI records within 90 days.
After the number of naturalization applications nearly doubled in 2007, to 1.4 million, driving up average processing times to more than 13 months, USCIS reported in the fall that the average time was back to 8.8 months.
By October, about 475,000 applications were pending more than nine months, 192,000 more than 18 months and 118,000 more than two years, Dougherty reported.