After an unprecedented 3 million new citizenship applications last year, federal immigration officials said yesterday that they are scrambling to meet the demand, though critics noted that several hundred thousand potential voters would not see their applications processed in time for the November election.
During a congressional hearing in Washington, Emilio Gonzalez, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said his agency has extended its hours and plans to bring in 3,000 new and retired employees to help cut into an estimated average wait time per application of 18 months over the next two years.
Before a series of application fee increases last year prompted a surge in applicants that was more than double the usual amount, the average processing time was about seven months, Gonzalez said, calling the sudden spike "unprecedented in the history of immigration services in our nation."
"Please understand that at USCIS we view the surge as very good news in that applicants for these immigration benefits are demonstrating a deep desire to participate fully in our country's civic life," Gonzalez said.
Immigrant advocates and lawmakers at the hearing argued that won't be the case for thousands of legal permanent residents who were motivated by the approaching elections to apply for citizenship.
"This should not have been a surprise," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the immigration subcommittee that held the hearing. "It was totally predictable."
Driven by a heated - and now-stalled - debate in Congress over proposed federal immigration reforms, immigrant activists across the country have for the past two years been holding citizenship drives geared toward forming a new bloc of immigrant voters.
Reyna Andrade, 31, was among those who applied for citizenship last year, a decision the Skokie, Ill., woman had put off for years after arriving from Guatemala in 1993. The single mother of two said she was inspired by the presidential election and is now worried she'll miss it.
"I figured: This is the real big one," Andrade said. "I don't think this moment in history is going to repeat itself."
After submitting her application in July, Andrade said officials took her fingerprints last month but didn't say when she'd be sworn in.
Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said there are "several hundred thousand" applications nationwide that might not be processed before the fall.
"These aspiring citizens would completely miss out on the November 2008 elections through no fault of their own," Tsao said.
Other groups, however, argued that the applications shouldn't be hastily processed, pointing out that additional requirements for background checks introduced in recent years are a factor in the delays.
"National security and the integrity of the process must always come first," said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, a Washington-based group.
USCIS officials said the recent fee increases have allowed the agency to hire an extra 1,500 full-time and contracted workers, nearly half of whom will be trained in interviewing applicants and conducting background checks. The agency is also planning on recruiting 704 recently retired USCIS employees to help with the new demand, which would cut down on training time.
"These are people who have been processing these applications and doing these interviews recently and know the changes in law," said Marilu Cabrera, the agency's Chicago spokeswoman.
Beyond that, the agency plans on increasing the number of citizenship ceremonies it holds every month, she said.
Antonio Olivo writes for the Chicago Tribune.