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Speed Of Naturalizations - Can't They Do More?

by Alan Lee, Esq.

In reading over the testimony of Director Emilio T. Gonzalez of U.S.C.I.S. before Congress on January 17, 2008, I am struck with the question, "Can't they do more?"

Mr. Gonzalez went through all the statistics and they seemed imposing as to why naturalization applications have increased from a current average of 7 months or less to approximately 18 months. He cited receiving in excess of 3 million applications and petitions for immigration benefits in the summer of 2007 as compared with 1.8 million applications and petitions received in the same period the previous year; that in June and July 2007, naturalization applications increased nearly 350% compared to the same period in 2006. To deal with this, Mr. Gonzalez stated that U.S.C.I.S. has begun hiring 1500 new employees of which 723 are adjudicators; U.S.C.I.S.'s request to rehire experienced annuitants has been approved; the agency has identified 704 former U.S.C.I.S. employees who have retired; and U.S.C.I.S. will ask current staff to continue working additional overtime and shift work and detail employees to areas most heavily impacted by the surge.

These steps are all sound, but U.S.C.I.S. and the Administration should work as hard as they can to implement these practices immediately and at the utmost speed to curb the growing suspicion that the Administration is attempting to disenfranchise Hispanics caught in the naturalization slowdown from voting in the Presidential election of 2008, where they are widely expected to deliver a heavily Democratic vote. Hispanics comprised the vast majority of the approximate 1.2 million naturalization applicants in 2007. Through the Republicans' largely anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions, they have lost traction among Hispanics who voted 40% Republican in 2004. The Hispanic vote is extremely important as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials expects at least 9.3 million Hispanics to vote this year, 1.7 million more than in 2004. This is a huge bloc of voters that may shift the balance of power in a number of states. Persons of Hispanic origin, legal or illegal, by and large support immigration reform and blame the Republicans for not compromising on the immigration issue since 2005 including blocking comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2007 and mandating the punitive work raids that followed which tore away detained parents from young children. In 2006, the Hispanic Republican vote dropped by 10%, and in a poll late last year by the Pew Hispanic Center, only 23% identified themselves as Republicans while the number identifying themselves as Democrats grew to 57%.

Why should the Republicans care? Because their being identified with further actions against the Hispanic population will have negative repercussions not only for this election, but for future ones. For the Republicans to keep a sizable number of Hispanics in the fold, they should assuage any rising anger associated with perceived disenfranchisement and take more positive action to assure that the maximum number of naturalization applicants in 2007 become citizens in time to vote in November. Suggested actions are the following although others more cognizant of the agency process may think of more effective ones:

  1. For the short term, transfer naturalization officers on detail from district offices with light naturalization loads to those with larger numbers of applicants.

  2. For the short term, transfer most I-130 relative petition adjudicators from the service centers to district offices with larger numbers of naturalization applicants. Most experienced adjudicators are able to easily handle naturalization applications. Remaining I-130 adjudicators should only concentrate on adjudicating I-130 petitions from immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (parents, spouses and children) or preference category cases where the priority dates are close to becoming current.

  3. For the short term, transfer most employment based adjudicators from the service centers to district offices with larger numbers of naturalization applicants. Remaining adjudicators should only concentrate on adjudicating I-140 and I-485 applications where the priority dates are current or are close to becoming current. This move should be possible because of reduced workload in the wake of the 300,000 plus I-485 adjustment of status to permanent resident applications filed in July and August which effectively backlogged most of the employment based categories for years, leaving adjudicators unable to adjudicate most of the I-485 applications anyway.

  4. For the short term, transfer most adjudicators of employment authorization applications and advance parole applications from the service centers in Texas and Nebraska to the district offices with larger numbers of naturalization applicants. This should be possible as these service centers have by and large finished processing these applications for applicants who filed in the summer I-485 surge. Renewals of applications from this surge group will not be due for close to a year, and there is no expectation of a large number of new applications in the future as these are ancillary applications to I-485s, and cannot be filed without matching I-485 applications. An employment based I-485 is only capable of being filed when the current visa availability date surpasses the case's priority date, which is set at the time that a labor certification application is filed or, if labor certification is not required, at the time of the immigrant visa petition (I-140) filing with U.S.C.I.S. The summer I-485 surge has effectively backlogged the visa availability of most employment based categories meaning that not only can pending cases not be adjudicated but that much fewer cases can be filed for adjustment in the upcoming years.

  5. For the short term, transfer most clerical staff who have been involved with catching up on receipts caused by the summer surge to do the administrative work on naturalization applications (if needed). From our information, U.S.C.I.S. anticipates catching up on remaining receipts in January 2008.

  6. Work with the FBI to have more staff assigned to clearing FBI name checks, especially focused on naturalization applications. With the enhanced fees that U.S.C.I.S. has been receiving from applicants since July 30, 2007, the agency should be well able to finance more staff to look into paper records to ascertain whether they pertain to the applicants.
There are many ways that an Administration and its agencies can frustrate a process internally while cultivating an image of earnest cooperation. This can be seen in many overseas elections in which the politicians scream loudly that they have been aboveboard, but their supporters take legal, quasi legal, or extralegal steps to stifle opposition. Weighing in the balance of true fairness for Republicans should not only be considerations of this election but that Hispanics are the the largest and most rapidly growing minority group in this country and that their children born in the U.S. will be eligible to vote in future elections. The perception that they have been unjustly deprived of the right to vote in this coming election may redound unfavorably on any Republican efforts to cultivate them in the future.

In the case of the U.S.C.I.S., the agency has lost credibility since its Visagate fiasco in July 2007 and must do more to convince the public that it is not making a subtle attempt to hold down the Hispanic vote to aid the Administration. In Visagate, the Department of State had opened up visa availability for employment based categories 1-3 entirely for the month which threatened a large slice of U.S.C.I.S.'s revenues to be raised through a fee hike scheduled on July 30, 2007. Because of the Department of State action, applicants could submit I-485s for the entire month of July at the then current rate of $395 instead of the scheduled increase of $1,010. In response, U.S.C.I.S. reportedly processed 25,000 applications in 48 hours in its service centers in Texas and Nebraska including all security clearances in an attempt to close visa availability on July 2, 2007. For June and the first two days of July 2007, the agency reportedly completed over 60,000 employment based cases whereas it had only finished 66,425 such cases from October 2006-May 2007, a rate of 8,303 per month. Visagate was finally only settled after huge public outcry with the agency giving an additional period of time from July 17, 2007-August 17, 2007, for applicants to file I-485 applications in the affected categories at the old rate.

A look at the numbers of cases claimed to be completed in June and the first two days of July 2007 shows that the agency processed almost 700% more cases than the average per month prior to that time and raises legitimate questions concerning the long timetable for naturalization as given by Mr. Gonzalez. He stated the surge in naturalization applications in June and July 2007 being nearly 350% over that same period for 2006, but that is still only half of the approximate 700% spike of completions for the employment based cases for one month and two days over a typical month. It appears that the agency can work much more quickly than its average if it is of such mind. So it would behoove the U.S.C.I.S. and Republican Administration to promote trust in the workings of the agency by transparently working as hard as possible to naturalize those who filed in 2007 in time to vote in 2008.


Sources for this article include The New York Times January 19, 2008, "The Immigrant Vote"; The Wall Street Journal articles on January 18, 2008 "Paper Jam May Curb Latino Vote" and October 2, 2007, "Immigration Losers"; and the author's own articles in the Immigration Daily, July 10, 2007 "Is Money Behind U.S.C.I.S. Move To Have Department of State Take Unprecedented Action To 'Update' July Visa Chart?", and July 14, 2007 "Details Leaking Out on July Visa Chart Fiasco Show Extraordinary and Legally Questionable Steps by U.S.C.I.S. to Exhaust Visa Numbers to Protect Fee Hike Collections."

© Alan Lee, Esq.

About The Author

Alan Lee is a 25+ year practitioner of immigration law based in New York City. He was awarded the Sidney A. Levine prize for best legal writing at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1977 and has written extensively on immigration over the past years for the ethnic newspapers, World Journal, Sing Tao, Pakistan Calling, Muhasha and OCS. He has testified as an expert on immigration in civil court proceedings and was recognized by the Taiwan government in 1985 for his work protecting human rights. His article, "The Bush Temporary Worker Proposal and Comparative Pending Legislation: an Analysis" was Interpreter Releases' cover display article at the American Immigration Lawyers Association annual conference in 2004, and his victory in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a case of first impression nationwide, Firstland International v. INS, successfully challenged INS' policy of over 40 years of revoking approved immigrant visa petitions under a nebulous standard of proof. Its value as precedent, however, was short-lived as it was specifically targeted by the Administration in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.