The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service announced yesterday that it slashed the nation's immense backlog in citizenship applications by nearly a quarter last year, and said applicants can now expect to wait about 12 months to become citizens, down from 28 months a year ago.

Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner announced the figures in a news conference to highlight progress in reforming the troubled naturalization program. But Republican critics immediately questioned the INS statistics, and others complained that the agency had fallen behind in other work--such as issuing green cards--while focusing on the citizenship backlog.

The backlog reached a high of 1.8 million applications last year, with immigrants in some cities facing waits as long as three or four years after submitting their paperwork. The delays led advocates to complain that the INS was making it too difficult for immigrants to naturalize even as citizenship levels among the nation's booming foreign-born population fell to the lowest level in a century.

But Meissner said the INS is on track now to reduce the average processing time to six months by the end of the next year. She said the INS processed a record 1.2 million applications last year, twice as many as the year before.

"Welcoming new citizens is one of the most important things we do as a nation," she said, attributing the progress to new technology and staffing made possible by $176 million that Congress appropriated last year to boost naturalization efforts.

INS officials said the average wait for immigrants applying for citizenship varies from city to city, with those in San Francisco and Houston facing the longest delays, about 19 months. Locally, immigrants in Virginia, Maryland and the District applying for citizenship can expect an average wait of nine to 10 months.

Meissner stressed that the INS speeded the naturalization process without lowering standards. Three years ago, Republicans accused the Clinton administration of naturalizing immigrants without conducting thorough criminal background checks.

Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank that studies the nation's Latino population, attributed the agency's success in part to a sharp drop in the number of immigrants applying for citizenship, from nearly 1.6 million in 1997 to less than half that this year. "People know there's a long wait to get your papers processed, so they get discouraged from applying," he said.

Crystal Williams, a spokesperson for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, praised the reduction in the naturalization backlog but complained that the INS has yet to help the nearly 1 million people waiting for green cards.

INS officials say they now face an average wait of 33 months for green cards, though the agency hopes to reduce that to 24 months in the coming year. "In the meantime," Williams said, "businesses are desperate for employees and families are waiting to be legally reunited."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, questioned the INS claims altogether, noting that agency officials testified last year that the average processing time for naturalization applications was 14, not 28 months.

INS spokesperson Maria Cordona said Smith was using figures for applicants who had just finished the process; the longer estimate was for applicants beginning the process.