San Diego Union-Tribune

June 9, 2001

New crush of paperwork leaves INS further behind

By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Immigration and Naturalization Service is struggling with "unprecedented surges" of paperwork stemming from its latest benefit programs. The INS is already under fire from congressional investigators over extensive delays in processing citizenship and green card applications.

"This is an agency that believed it was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and indeed that light is the oncoming train," said Crystal Williams, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

One of the most overwhelmed INS facilities is the California Service Center, in Laguna Niguel.

Over the last few months, the center has been flooded with hundreds of thousands of requests from illegal immigrants seeking to adjust their status without leaving the country. The applicants sought to meet an April 30 deadline Congress imposed under the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act, or LIFE.

Although the Bush administration and Congress have taken steps to extend the deadline by four months, the INS is left with a crush of paperwork.

"INS has faced and continues to face unprecedented surges in workload related to a number of benefit programs," Eyleen Schmidt, an agency spokeswoman, conceded.

Recently, the INS has ordered mandatory overtime and seven-days-a-week coverage, and has reassigned employees at the California center, which serves eight Western states and received the largest load under the LIFE program.

While the INS hurriedly tries to process one benefit program, others face delays.

Authorities acknowledged yesterday that there have been significant delays in carrying out background checks of immigrants seeking permanent residency, or green cards.

The CIA and FBI reviews usually take 60 days. The wait has doubled to 120 days, according to Elaine Komis, an INS spokeswoman.

Still, the agency expects to catch up with the LIFE immigration applications within a few weeks and return the staff to its normal work, Komis said.

"We have a major blitz going on; we have our people assisting any way they can to keep up with the flow of applications," said Sandra Schatz, chief of the INS contract management records in Washington.

Since March, the California Service Center alone has been besieged with more than 500,000 "pieces of mail," including nearly 300,000 applications related to the LIFE program, officials said.

Williams and other immigrant advocates say they are keeping their fingers crossed about the INS's ability to handle the latest crisis.

"So many cases have been put into the system," Williams said. Her group represents lawyers nationwide whose caseload includes immigrants applying for benefits.

"If there is any suspension of processing green card applications, it's not deliberate, but there is just so much to do," she said.