The plans announced recently by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for reducing the backlog in processing applications couldn't have come at a better time. Whether the steps outlined -- more hiring and better automation, greater flexibility in adjudicating cases -- are enough to make a difference will be seen. What the steps will not immediately address are the frustration and dismay that immigrants are feeling.
Nearly 2 million immigrants have citizenship applications tied up in a backlog. The average waiting time for completion is 27 months, which the INS would like to pare to 12 months by the end of September. Immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens are getting mixed messages from the INS and the media -- making the acquisition of citizenship a process of fear instead of celebration.
Message 1: Your green card is worth less now than when you got it -- you had better become a citizen.
The 1996 Welfare Act put the government seal of approval on the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment that had been growing for several years. Ironically, this created a rush for citizenship by legal permanent residents. Historically there had been few legal distinctions between legal permanent residents and citizens, except for voting and political participation. Most immigrants lead lives that are nearly identical to those of citizens: working to support families, paying taxes, enrolling children in public schools and participating in religious and social organizations.
However, when Congress passed the Welfare Act, millions of legal permanent resident immigrants were suddenly vulnerable. They immediately became ineligible for most social welfare benefits. Many immigrants, regardless of whether they received public benefits, recognized that this signaled a change in the way legal immigrants were viewed. They responded predictably by naturalizing in large numbers. Not all of them are in it for the access to benefits -- many are naturalizing for more reasons than one, not the least of them for the conferral of equal footing with U.S.-born citizens.
The government's shift forced many immigrants to seek naturalization only to get the next message.
Message 2: You are becoming a citizen for the wrong reason.
Motivations for citizenship are different for these immigrants than they have been in the past. While it's unclear whether it is myth, reality or a mix, becoming a citizen has been idealized as a profoundly patriotic act. Current studies of citizenship acquisition show that immigrants are aware of the changing legislative conditions and political climate and are fearful of future implications. Most immigrants who are becoming citizens do so for a mix of practical reasons and not simply for access to welfare benefits. For example, no fewer than three federal programs dating back to 1992 have encouraged more immigrants to seek citizenship.
Forced or encouraged to become citizens, then questioned about motivations, immigrants get the next message.
Message 3: Hurry up and wait.
The hurry-up-and-wait situation sends the message that the U.S. government is not taking immigrants' quest for citizenship seriously. It also serves to discourage other would-be citizens from applying. The long waiting times -- often with no interim communication from the INS -- are especially high in immigrant-heavy cities such as Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. The recent announcement of the hiring of 300 new staff and conversion of 300 temporary positions to permanent ones will help expedite applications.
Naturalization is voluntary on the part of immigrants but involves a mutual obligation on the part of both the new citizens and the host society to work together on settlement and incorporation. Instead of mixed messages, the INS needs to send a clear signal that the United States welcomes immigrants as full members of U.S. society and on the path to citizenship, that we will treat them with the same respect as other U.S. citizens.
Audrey Singer is an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Greta Gilbertson is an associate professor at Fordham University. Both writers were Open Society Fellows in 1998.