Tackling the Citizenship Backlog
Immigration authorities shorten the wait, but the line remains too long.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A STRANGE thing can happen when government makes a concerted effort to tackle a daunting problem: Real progress is sometimes made, as in the case of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and its backlogged citizenship applications.

In 2007, the USCIS, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, took an average of 18 months to process a citizenship application. Today, processing an application takes nine or 10 months, thanks in large part to a dramatic hiring spurt at the agency last year. USCIS brought on 2,058 new employees, of whom 1,600 were assigned to evaluate applications. According to a new report from the USCIS ombudsman, the agency completed roughly 1.1 million applications this year -- 422,000 more than last year. Of those applications, 1.05 million were approved.

This is a significant improvement, but there is still much to do. The ombudsman noted that some 118,000 citizenship applications have been pending for more than two years; an additional 192,000 have yet to be completed, even though they were filed more than 18 months ago; roughly 475,000 applications have been pending for more than nine months. In 2007, then-USCIS Director Emilio T. Gonzalez promised to reduce the processing time to five months. The agency should be held to that pledge.

USCIS should also improve coordination with the federal courts to cut down on delays in swearing in approved applicants. USCIS may swear in new citizens, but generally only if the federal court with jurisdiction relinquishes its exclusive right to do so for the first 45 days after an application has been approved. Exceptions are made for those who need to be sworn in immediately, such as military service members destined for overseas assignments. But the process sometimes breaks down. The ombudsman reports that 1,900 approved applicants were denied the chance to vote in the 2008 elections because the federal district court in their area did not move quickly enough to swear them in. The ombudsman's report did not identify the court in question, and the DHS separately declined to provide specifics. Although a ceremonial swearing-in by a judge often adds a level of grandeur and gravitas appropriate to the moment, the focus must be on administering oaths in a timely manner.

In the long run, Congress should appropriate money for USCIS rather than force it to be funded through filing fees paid by applicants. The incoming Obama administration should rethink the huge fee increases imposed by USCIS last year; in some cases they rose sevenfold. While these increases helped fund this year's hiring, they also placed enormous financial burdens on applicants.

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