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INS Spending Too Little on Citizenship Efforts, Group Says : Immigration: Report says it 'will be difficult' to process record number of applications because too much money is going toward border enforcement. Agency calls the findings misleading.

August 23, 1995|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite record increases in citizenship applications, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is spending one-third less of its budget on processing prospective citizens than five years ago while ratcheting up its spending on enforcement, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study was conducted by the Latino Issues Forum, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that encourages citizenship applications. It concludes that it "will be difficult, if not impossible" for the INS to efficiently process the record 900,000 citizenship applications expected this year. Los Angeles leads the nation in such applications.

"The INS does not have the structural and fiscal resources necessary to meet the increased demand for citizenship," said the analysis, billed as the first independent examination of how the INS finances citizenship programs.

Like other groups that work with immigrants, the forum is encouraging longtime residents to apply for citizenship, in part as protection against what many call a growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

Don Mueller, an INS spokesman in Washington, denied that the still-surging demand for citizenship had overwhelmed the agency, despite the growing backlog. "We're reasserting control, and we're going to be doing some things to improve our control," said Mueller, who said the study's findings are misleading.

In a scheduled visit to Los Angeles next week, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner is expected to unveil major initiatives designed to reduce the backlog and expedite the application process. Delays of a year or longer between the submission of applications and swearing-in are now common in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and other cities.

Nationwide, citizenship applications have almost quadrupled since 1990. Experts say perceived growth in the hostility toward immigrants embodied in California's Proposition 187 and proposed congressional cuts to legal immigrants has accelerated the trend in the past year.

Top INS administrators have conceded that delays are too long, particularly because applicants pay a $95 fee that is supposed to cover processing costs. The new study maintains that some of that money is siphoned off for the agency's ongoing enforcement campaign--an assertion that the agency disputes.

The INS, with an annual budget slated to surpass $2 billion next year, has long engaged in a balancing act between enforcement--primarily policing the U.S.-Mexico border--and service, the "naturalization" of legal immigrants seeking citizenship. Critics have maintained that the agency and its congressional overseers have neglected the naturalization functions to concentrate on hiring more Border Patrol agents and other politically popular enforcement efforts--a contention denied by Meissner and past commissioners.

The new study--based on an analysis of INS budgets since 1990--provides a statistical context for that tension. Since 1990, as the INS budget grew from $1.1 billion to more than $1.8 billion, the study notes that funding for enforcement has increased substantially, both in dollar terms and as a percentage of overall expenditures. Enforcement accounted for 60% of total INS expenditures in 1990, compared to more than 66% of today's much larger agency budget.

During the same period, the study found, funds directed to naturalization and other "adjudication" matters have dropped from about 11% to 7% of the agency's overall budget.

The amount of dollars directed to naturalization and other adjudications did increase from $129 million to $134 million during the five-year period, the study acknowledged. However, because of the huge overall rise in the INS budget, the proportion of overall spending on naturalization dropped by more than one-third.

"This shows that naturalization is just not important to the INS," said Guillermo Rodriguez Jr., executive director of the Latino Issues Forum, a nonprofit group that is funded by donations from corporations, foundations and individuals. "We want to put the 'N' back into the INS," he said.

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