Agencies tackle backlog of citizenship applications

Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) and the FBI will collaborate in an effort to speed the processing of about 285,000 name check requests from the immigration agency.

Lawmakers and immigration advocates have expressed criticism about a growing backlog of naturalization applications. Officials are hoping that the joint plan will enable the FBI to complete a name check in less than 30 days by June 2009.

The name check is only one step in the naturalization process. However, CIS’ ombudsman said the FBI name checks might be the single biggest obstacle to timely and efficient delivery of immigration benefits.

The cooperative plan calls for the FBI to give priority to the processing of 29,800 pending name checks from naturalization applications submitted to the bureau before May 2006 for which applicants have already been interviewed by CIS.

CIS nearly doubled the fees for naturalization applications from $330 to $595 last summer. Since then, the pressure has increased to decrease waiting times for adjudicating naturalization requests. CIS requested the fee hike to pay for increased staffing, improve processes and reduce delays in adjudicating applications, yet the backlog has increased since CIS increased the fee. 

Michael Cannon, chief of FBI’s national name check program section, said the plan, through which CIS will transfer $15 million to the FBI, will enable the bureau to hire more employees to work through the backlog. Now the FBI has 40 employees and 210 contractor employees dedicated to processing CIS requests.

CIS received about 1.4 million citizenship applications in fiscal 2007, almost double what it received in 2006.  Applications were up by 360 percent in June and July immediately before the price increase, according to the agency.

The surge in applications came because of several factors converging at once, said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director at the Migration Policy Institute. The federal government failed to fully anticipate the consequences of its fee increases, the citizenship campaigns launched by advocacy groups, and the fact that more immigrants would be motivated to become citizens because of interest in the 2008 elections, she said.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee used an April 2 hearing on Homeland Security Department oversight to tell DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff that the current 13- to 15-month wait for processing naturalization applications is unacceptable. DHS’ goal is seven months.

Chertoff told lawmakers that a significant number of people who had already applied for naturalization might not receive a decision before the election. However, he added that DHS planned to process 1 million naturalization requests this year, a signicant increase from last year. 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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