Citizenship delayed … indefinitely

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The heated national debate over immigration largely ignores the plight of long-time, documented immigrants whose citizenship applications are stalled in bureaucratic limbo. The cancellation of naturalization ceremonies in St. Paul in October and November is one symptom of the administrative meltdown that has left applicants waiting in line with no end in sight.

The number of immigrants applying to become naturalized citizens has increased steadily since 2004. (Naturalization is the process of becoming a U.S. citizen for anyone who is not a citizen by birth.) In 2006, 702,589 people became naturalized U.S. citizens, a 16% rise since 2005. Following the influx of applicants this year, that number seems sure to go up in 2007.

Marissa Hill-Dongre, an immigration attorney at Centro Legal in St. Paul, believes that the current political climate has pushed immigrants to ensure their place in the U.S more than in recent years. “People are scared with all the immigration concerns going on and the raids that are happening,” says Hill-Dongre.

As hundreds of thousands of immigrants apply for citizenship each year, many find that their quest has been severely delayed or denied. FBI name check slowdowns and application fee increases are among the obstacles faced by immigrants seeking citizenship. The recent cancellation of four oath ceremonies in St. Paul in October and November by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security has indefinitely delayed citizenship for hundreds of immigrants—and potential voters.

Judy Stuthman, Co-President of League of Women Voters in Minnesota, and her colleagues register new voters at naturalization ceremonies around the Twin Cities. They didn’t find out about the fall cancellations until they arrived to find an empty room, chairs still positioned at the ready. “We showed up at the ceremony,” says Stuthman, “no one had told us.”

Stuthman says that each of the four ceremonies scheduled in St. Paul this fall had the potential to swear in 450 people, and that past ceremonies averaged about 400 people each. Although the St. Paul ceremonies are usually filled to near capacity, some people were scheduled for the Minneapolis oath ceremonies in October, November and on December 19 instead. Those ceremonies are scheduled for an average of 75 people each. On December 19, for example, a total of 135 people became citizens in two ceremonies in Minneapolis. That leaves questions about what happened to the 1,000-plus people who would have taken their citizenship oaths in St. Paul.

Corleen Smith, the Citizenship Coordinator at the International Institute of Minnesota, works with immigrants to help explain the citizenship process and fill out applications. She has observed several clients who have experienced delays.

“There are thousands of people who can’t vote who were hoping to vote, if [the naturalization process] was going to take less than a year and now it’s going to take much longer,” says Smith, “When I’m talking to people about why they want to become citizens…voting is an important aspect… and a way to be a bigger part of the community.”

The League of Women Voters was recently given permission by Judge Donovan Frank, the U.S. District Court Judge who leads naturalization ceremonies in the Twin Cities, to be the only group allowed to register voters before naturalization ceremonies in the Twin Cities. Frank’s decision was not well received by USCIS, says Stuthman, but she hopes the delays come to an end so that she can continue helping people register. “I think it’s sad if it takes so long and people won’t be able to vote,” says Stuthman.

Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for the North Central region spanning almost a dozen states, says the word “cancellation” should be used lightly.

“We didn’t have to call people up and cancel the ceremony,” says Cabrera, “the ceremonies are set up a year in advance so if we don’t have enough [applicants] for a particular ceremony, we will just not schedule them.” Cabrera says the St. Paul ceremonies were not filled enough to justify holding the event. She could not answer questions about how many applicants were waiting for the St. Paul ceremonies.

Asked whether staffing shortages caused the cancellation of ceremonies, Cabrera said they did not. The Bloomington office (which handles all cases in the St. Paul area district) currently has 44 people on staff with 15 vacancies. In the USCIS Annual Report sent to Congress in June 2007, the USCIS Ombudsman, Prakash Khatri, says that “substantial workforce staffing and training challenges remain for USCIS.”

“We don’t go around canceling ceremonies,” says Cabrera, “that ceremony [in St. Paul] will be rescheduled as soon as possible….[but] staffing and ceremonies have nothing to do with each other.” She notes that they have conducted several ceremonies since the four were cancelled.

Huge numbers of applications for naturalization have flooded immigration offices nationwide over the past several months. Effective July 30, the application fee accompanying the N-400 naturalization form rose from $400 to $675. People scrambled to get their applications in before the fee hike, resulting in a record 1.4 million applications landing on immigration desks in 2006, nearly double the number received the previous year.

“We’re still in the process of dealing with all those applications,” says Cabrera, “it’s created a lot of work for us. Nationwide, I don’t know how it’s going to affect each individual office.”

After filing a ten-page application for citizenship and paying the $675 fee, those seeking naturalization must go through a series of steps—photos and fingerprints, FBI background and name checks, a 100-question test on U.S. history, a demonstrated proficiency in English, a personal interview—culminating in a ceremony and oath of citizenship.

Back in 2002, the Homeland Security Act abolished the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and divided its responsibilities between the USCIS and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), moving both to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). At that time, DHS boasted that the entire naturalization process would take only six months. Now, due to the fee increase, those who filed applications as early as June 1 can expect to wait a minimum of 16 to 18 months.

One woman from the Twin Cities, who wished to remain anonymous for fear that identifying herself would further delay her naturalization, has been waiting patiently for notice of the date when she can take her 100-question test and ultimately, her oath. After filing the N-400 form, she followed the appropriate protocol but has heard nothing since submitting her fingerprints more than a year ago. She has since hired a lawyer to find out the source of the problem, and gets weekly tutoring to prepare herself for the 100-question U.S. history test.

“I don’t know. A lot of people, three weeks, the fingerprint is done and [soon after] they have citizenship,” she says, “but I’m waiting.” She has been in the U.S. since the late 1990s and would prefer to have citizenship instead of renewing her green card every ten years. Most of her family members have become citizens without any problem. Why has she had so many issues getting naturalized? “No idea,” she says, “I don’t have any idea.”

One possible answer for this Minnesota woman could be that the USCIS passes so-called “difficult” cases to the side in favor of more cut-and-dried ones. In the USCIS Annual Report, the Ombudsman explains that, from his many visits to USCIS field offices in the U.S., adjudicators “pick the low hanging fruit,” preferring to push the time-intensive cases to the side. “These cases remain pending, perhaps for years, while backlog reduction appears generally to be succeeding,” the report states.

In addition, field office workloads vary, and funding is assigned depending on completion rates. “Offices with more than the average numbers of difficult cases or offices that try to work the difficult cases thoroughly will not be adequately funded because the number of completions will be low,” the report says, “meanwhile, offices that push to complete the easy cases will see their budgets grow.”

Marissa Hill-Dongre has worked with several clients seeking naturalization, particularly families, and victims of crime and violence. She says that the real issue behind citizenship delays in the U.S. is the FBI name check.

“They won’t do the interview [part of the naturalization process] without the name check clearance,” says Hill-Dongre, who (seconded by Stuthman) says that the Minnesota Somali community is feeling the brunt of the name check issue. As part of becoming a U.S. citizen, all names are subject to an FBI check for criminal records or other FBI records. These checks often cause delays because similar names produce false “hits.” In addition, the name check process is backlogged, resulting in major delays, since the process cannot proceed until the name check is cleared.

Calling the long waits a violation of the law, groups in California have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court. The lawsuit, Bavi v. Mukasey, names Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the FBI, and the USCIS as defendants. Plaintiffs, who include the ACLU of Southern California, the National Immigration Law Center, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olsen, say that name check delays violate time limits, and will ask that these time limits be enforced in order to reduce naturalization backlogs while still upholding national security.

“[The name checks] hinder backlog reductions efforts, and may not achieve their intended national security objectives. FBI name checks may be the single biggest obstacle to the timely and efficient delivery of immigration benefits,” says the USCIS Annual Report, “…The delay caused by the FBI name check has substantial consequences to applicants and their families, as well as to our country and the economy.”

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