San Diego Union Tribune

January 10, 2005

Progress uneven on immigration paperwork
U.S. swamped with backlog of applications for benefits

By Joe Cantlupe

WASHINGTON – Rosa Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Escondido, figured she would have to wait a few months before getting a new visa that would allow her to remain in the United States and work as a housekeeper.

But it has been 10 months since her visa expired, and the 33-year-old is worried. Rodriguez stays close to home because she is anxious about getting into trouble with immigration authorities.

"My permission to work expired and I need another one," Rodriguez said in a recent interview, referring to what is known as the "V" visa. The visa, which is for spouses of permanent residents, must be renewed every two years.

"I have no papers and, of course, right now I am scared," she said. "I really don't know what the holdup is."

The holdup is a logjam of unprocessed applications for immigration benefits that reached a record 6.2 million last year.

After a decade of increasing backlogs, immigration officials say they have turned the corner and reduced the backlog to 3.2 million cases. Two-thirds of that reduction reflects a change in the way they count pending cases.

But the waiting times generally are down from 10 years ago, government figures show. Applications are made for benefits that include citizenship, green cards and work permits.

"I would like to think of our daunting task like climbing Mount Everest," said Eduardo Aguirre, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It is a great challenge, but it can be done. Production is up. Pending and backlog figures are down."

The Department of Homeland Security took over immigration matters when the Immigration and Naturalization Service was abolished as part of a sweeping government reorganization after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It created CIS to handle the adjudication of applications for immigration benefits.

The new agency inherited millions of backlogged INS applications and a dismal record of inefficiency and bureaucratic disarray.

Although officials flash numbers showing progress, that progress is uneven. Backlog figures and processing times vary from city to city and from benefit to benefit, say immigration lawyers and advocates.

CIS has concentrated on processing citizenship claims at the expense of other applications, several attorneys say.

As a result, the national average time for processing a citizenship application is 13 months; a green card takes 22 months.

Interviews and background checks contribute to the delays, especially since the attacks. The sheer volume of applications is another. The number of people resettling in the United States during the past four decades is by far the highest in U.S. history.

"Some things are moving pretty quickly," said immigration attorney Jonathan Montag. "There's definitely a lot of improvement there."

For instance, the wait for replacement green cards in California has been reduced from 99 days in 1999 to 40 days, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

But inefficiencies persist, immigration lawyers say.

"I have had cases where people are waiting, and their applications are shipped from one service center to another," said Boyd F. Campbell, an immigration lawyer based in Atlanta.

One way the administration has dealt with the backlog is to change the way it counts the cases. For example, it stopped counting pending cases as part of the backlog until they were at least six months delayed.

The changes create the illusion of progress, some critics say.

"All of this stuff is smoke and mirrors," said Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies and a former chief of the non-immigrant visa section in the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago.

"It hasn't changed," she said. "It takes a long time to process the (applications). They are making some progress in improving the paperwork flow, but the reality is that these changes still are not speeding anyone's journey through the system."

Rosa Rodriguez thought it would be only a few months to get an extension on her visa. She and her husband, Misael, planned to take their 7-year-old daughter to Disneyland over the holidays.

But they didn't go.

"I want to go to Los Angeles, but I'm scared, afraid," she said in an interview last month. "I don't want to get in trouble."

Her lawyer, Lilia Velasquez, decries inconsistencies in the system. "They say, 'Oh, sorry, we're still processing the file,' " Velasquez said. "Sometimes immigration is very uneven and unpredictable."

Mohamud Heibeh, 43, a native of Somalia, is married to a U.S. citizen and has been waiting since 2002 to become one himself. The San Diego cab driver said he's been frustrated.

His attorney, Danielle Homant, understands the need for such things as security checks. But, she says, it shouldn't take so long.

However, Heibeh's case shows that delays aren't always caused by processing. Sometimes they reflect the challenge of administering a complex law.

Heibeh's citizenship application was denied in 1989 and again in 2000 because he owed child support. After he paid the child support and passed a test, he was denied again.

"All my family and everybody is here. I'm not going outside of this country," he said.

Last year, an aide to Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, wrote enthusiastically to Heibeh: "In April, you should expect good news."

It didn't happen. And it still hasn't.

During the Clinton administration, repeated efforts to deal with the backlogs were beset with missteps.

"All of us miscalculated what the system would take," said Doris Meissner, former INS commissioner.

Replacing INS with CIS has been a chance for a new start, Aguirre said.

After the overhaul, "there was a period of malaise among our employees (who were) not certain how to fit into the overall scheme," he said. "(But) we've dusted ourselves off and moved on."

Technology, especially a more sophisticated use of the Internet, has improved productivity and reduced the level of frustration for applicants, say officials and applicants.

But, with millions of cases backlogged, more adjudicators are needed, advocates say. There are about 3,000 at service centers around the country, but there "should be twice as many," said Crystal Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The cost is borne almost entirely by the applicants through processing fees.

Edward Kogan of San Diego said the reforms haven't helped him yet.

Kogan, 69, an immigrant from Ukraine, has been waiting two years for his citizenship application to be processed.

"I answered everything truthfully and already have been fingerprinted twice," he said in a recent interview.

His attorney, Tatyana Edwards of San Diego, blames the delays on security checks.

Kogan's wife and two adult children have been naturalized.

Recently, Kogan was so upset about the delays during a visit to the immigration office in San Diego that he started raising his voice.

When he used an obscenity, "they escorted me out," he said.

Still, he has hope.

"Getting citizenship would be terrific," he said.

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