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Gore Immigrant Program Role Draws Fire

Politics: GOP sees naturalization effort as attempt to add Democrats to voter rolls in key states. House committee cites memos as proof.

October 06, 1996|SARA FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As long as Vice President Al Gore's drive to "reinvent government" was focused on paperwork reduction and other sterile bureaucratic issues, nobody seemed to object. But his attempts to reinvent the immigrant-naturalization program is drawing a very different reaction.

Republicans in Congress are taking strong exception to the vice president's involvement in Citizenship USA, a program to naturalize more than 1 million people this year that they see as an effort by the administration to add Democrats to the voter rolls in California and other key states.

The Republicans' anger is based on numerous internal administration memos obtained recently by investigators for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which claims the documents demonstrate Gore's desire to speed up naturalization to help President Clinton in the November election.

In the process of hastening the naturalization process, according to the Republicans, the program has been lax in enforcing many of the INS rules and has mistakenly bestowed citizenship on dozens of criminals who should have been disqualified.

In one draft memo that was intended to be sent by Gore to Clinton, Republican committee members charged, a top aide to the vice president proposed ways to "lower the standards for citizenship" and acknowledged that the program could be viewed as "a pro-Democratic voter mill."

In fact, the memo in question is so controversial that it has become the object of a legal battle between House Republicans, who are demanding a copy, and the White House, which has refused to make it available to them. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno is expected to decide soon whether to assert executive privilege to prevent members of Congress from obtaining a copy of the memo.

Republican members say documents they have obtained demonstrate, among other things, that White House officials tried to get the names of all newly naturalized citizens from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, apparently so that Clinton could send letters to them.

For their part, Gore's aides strongly deny that the vice president's interest in naturalization has any political overtones.

According to Gore aide Elaine Kamarck, the program is designed simply to eliminate a huge backlog of applications by immigrants seeking naturalization.

"If this had happened in 1993, 1994 or 1995, we would have done exactly the same thing," Kamarck said in an interview.

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Kamarck added that Citizenship USA is active in Miami, where many new immigrants are Republicans, as well as in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, where the majority are likely to be Democrats.

Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), who has presided over the investigation of Citizenship USA by a House Government Reform and Oversight Committee panel, agreed that the program probably was prompted by the application backlog. But he emphasized that the administration went beyond solving that problem by encouraging community-based groups to recruit hundreds of thousands of additional applicants.

"Why would the INS do such things?" Souder asked. "Disturbingly, the evidence suggests that the naturalization push may have resulted from direct orders of the White House to naturalize new citizens to register them as likely Democratic voters in upcoming elections."

As proof, Souder referred to memos the committee has obtained that refer frequently to Citizenship USA as a White House-inspired program. Typical of these documents is a letter, written April 3 by Don L. Riding, officer in charge of the program in Fresno, that said:

"The INS has been told to naturalize everyone who filed form N-400 [the application for naturalization] prior to April 1, 1996, in time for them to register to vote in the November election."

Likewise, a letter written to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton by Chicago Alderman Daniel Soilis, a leading advocate of Citizenship USA, observed that the program could "provide the Democrats with a strategic advantage" and that "people stuck in Chicago's naturalization bottleneck represent thousands of potential voters."

But the most hotly disputed element of this controversy has to do with the role of the vice president's office and staff responsible for the so-called National Performance Review--the program established to reinvent government. Republicans see Gore's influence as evidence of political motivations.

Senior members of Gore's staff toured some naturalization facilities early in the year, including a stop at a California office in March.

About the same time, Douglas Farbrother, an employee of the National Performance Review, wrote to INS officials to advise waiving some rules in order to streamline the naturalization process. The committee obtained that memo and others suggesting that the INS had acted on Farbrother's advice.

While acknowledging encouraging streamlining, Kamarck insisted that the advice applied only to the procedures for hiring new staff, not naturalizing immigrants.

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