The number of foreigners who became permanent U.S. immigrants dropped sharply in 2003 as anti-terrorism measures delayed the processing of applications, according to a new government report.
The report, released recently by the Department of Homeland Security, showed that 705,827 people became legal permanent residents in fiscal 2003, down from 1.06 million the year before. The Washington area recorded a 22 percent decline. A permanent-resident document, known as a "green card," allows an immigrant to live and work indefinitely in the United States and is the first step toward citizenship.
The decline does not mean that immigration is drying up. In fact, the number of newly arrived legal immigrants declined just 7 percent. Most of those affected by the trend were foreigners already here -- students, workers and others -- who were hoping to become permanent residents. Only 347,416 got green cards in 2003, roughly half the number as in the previous year, because of the slowdown in processing.
Although many of those immigrants were in the United States on temporary visas, the delays in getting permanent papers often caused hardship, immigrant advocates and attorneys said.
"This is really about how the federal immigration system post-9/11 has collapsed," said Michael Maggio, a D.C. immigration attorney.
Federal authorities defended their performance, saying they have had to deal with a host of new security measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They noted that about 1,000 immigration workers were diverted in 2003 to a Justice Department program to register male visitors from many predominantly Muslim countries, reducing the number who could process applications. In addition, millions of applicants were required to go through extra background checks.
"We have a responsibility . . . to ensure no one takes advantage of our hospitality to do us harm," said Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of Homeland Security.
The new measures contributed to a backlog at the immigration service. The number of pending applications for all immigration benefits grew by nearly 60 percent in three years, to 6.2 million at the end of fiscal 2003, according to a Government Accountability Office report this year. That number has since dropped below 6 million, and about 3.6 million have been pending for more than six months, officials said.
For many of those applying to be permanent residents, the long wait can frazzle nerves -- or worse. Without a green card, some immigrants can't travel outside the country or get in-state tuition rates. In the most extreme cases, immigrants can fall out of legal status while waiting for their permanent papers, risking the loss of jobs and even deportation.
Alba Salgado, 32, a hotel housekeeper who lives in Alexandria, has a work permit through a program called temporary protected status. But in the 10 years since she was sponsored for a green card by her father, a legal resident, she hasn't been able to travel outside the country.
In the summer, she sends her two children, ages 13 and 6, to visit relatives in El Salvador, but she can't join them.
"It's difficult for me to send them there with my dad and stay here alone," she said.
Salgado said she was informed by immigration authorities last year that she would get her residency soon. But her file was lost in the upheaval that occurred when the immigration service was folded into Homeland Security in March 2003, Salgado said. She has had to re-submit many of her documents.
"It's a long time saying, 'Maybe this year, maybe this year,' " she said.
The Washington region gained 29,845 permanent residents last year, down from 38,468 a year earlier, according to the Homeland Security report.
President Bush vowed when he was elected to have every immigration application processed within six months of submission, and authorities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try to cut the backlog. But they have made limited progress because of the added checks.
Immigration critics and supporters say the new figures show a mismatch between the immigration service's resources and commitments.
"If we want an immigration system that is both secure and admits huge numbers of people, we need to spend enormous amounts of money to make it work," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower levels of immigration.
The processing delays also affected the number of people becoming U.S. citizens last year. A total of 463,204 were naturalized, down 19 percent from a year earlier.
In addition to those arriving legally, the immigration service estimates that the population of unauthorized immigrants grows by 300,000 to 350,000 annually and now totals about 8 million. More than half of those illegal immigrants sneak over the border; others overstay their visas, statistics show.
Staff writer D'Vera Cohn contributed to this report.