The Department of Homeland Security failed to prepare for a massive influx of applications for U.S. citizenship and other immigration benefits this summer, prompting complaints from Hispanic leaders and voter-mobilization groups that several hundred thousand people may not be granted citizenship in time to cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election.
Bush administration officials said yesterday that they had anticipated applicants would rush to file their paperwork to beat a widely publicized fee increase that took effect July 30, but did not expect the scale of the response. The backlog comes just months after U.S. officials failed to prepare for tougher border security requirements that triggered months-long delays for millions of Americans seeking passports.
Before the fee hike, citizenship cases typically took about seven months to complete. Now, immigration officials can take five months or more just to acknowledge receipt of applications from parts of the country and will take 16 to 18 months on average to process applications filed after June 1, according to officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of DHS. Such a timeline would push many prospective citizens well past voter-registration deadlines for the 2008 primaries and the general elections.
We expected [the fee increase] might stimulate demand from some folks to file who wouldn't have otherwise, and some from folks to file earlier than they would have," said Michael Aytes, associate director of USCIS, "but we never anticipated" the extent of the growth. "It went off the charts," he said.
Other factors include legal immigrants' anxiety at an increasingly harsh tenor of the political debate over illegal immigration, and heightened interest in the 2008 presidential election, officials said.
Double the workload
The immigration agency's workload has nearly doubled, Aytes said, with 1.4 million naturalization applications arriving from October 2006 to September 2007, compared with 731,000 applications the year before. Between July and September of this year alone, USCIS received 560,000 applications, he said.
The number of green-card-related applications surged to 876,000 in fiscal 2007, from 497,000 in fiscal 2006, he said. At one point this summer, USCIS had 1 million applications and checks waiting to be opened and acknowledged, Aytes said, a backlog that now stands at 235,000. Overall, USCIS received 7.7 million applications for all types of immigration benefits, up from 6.3 million.
"I really want to target the elections," USCIS Director Emilio T. Gonzalez told the Associated Press in an interview published Tuesday. "I really want to get as many people out there to vote as possible."
Aides, however, contradicted him. "We are going to process these cases as responsibly and as quickly as we can, but we're not focused on any of the election cycle," Aytes said. USCIS spokesman Bill Wright emphasized that political calculations played no role in agency decisions. "Any implication of that is ludicrous," he said.
In June, poor planning and coordination between DHS and the State Department forced the Bush administration to temporarily suspend a new security requirement that Americans present passports when flying to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. Processing times for passport applications ballooned from three weeks to three or four months, jeopardizing summer travel plans for millions of Americans. Wait times returned to normal after the State Department allocated more resources and staff.CONTINUED
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