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California and the West

INS Apologizes to Citizenship Seekers Enmeshed in Backlog

July 06, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, routinely assailed as the embodiment of bureaucratic incompetence and arrogance, is taking a new approach toward multitudes of citizenship applicants mired in the agency's ever-expanding backlog.

The INS says it is sorry.

"INS sincerely regrets this and other delays you may have faced," the agency is informing up to 200,000 citizenship-seekers in seven Southern California counties alone who have waited so long that their criminal background checks are expiring after 15 months, forcing them to have fingerprints retaken. "We apologize for the inconvenience this creates."

Such a mea culpa might be expected from another government agency--or a private company--that allowed people who paid a $95 fee to languish while their applications gathered dust in what INS Commissioner Doris Meissner called a "black hole."

But contrition is seldom an act associated with the INS, notorious for its deplorable service and rude treatment of the public. Of late, though, its top officers have vowed to change all that, engaging in an unusual series of public apologies.

Meissner, in recent comments in Los Angeles and Washington, has conceded that customer service has failed miserably in an agency that daily inspects more than 1 million people in land, sea and air ports of entry and sees thousands more in district offices. Few government agencies have more direct contact with the public.

"We are not as timely as we want to be," Meissner recently testified before Congress. "We are not always as courteous as we should be. In fact, the history of the agency, despite the thousands of committed and hard-working employees, has never had a culture that truly emphasizes the importance of service and rewards it."

Traditionally, enforcement has been the INS's priority. Top managers historically rise from the Border Patrol, a uniformed branch whose main task is to arrest illegal immigrants and deter their entry. Centralized record-keeping, computerization and other efficiency steps have long been neglected, officials concede, leading to many applications being "lost in space," as one top INS official acknowledged.

But Meissner and her lieutenants proclaim a new era.

"We are . . . rebuilding our processes, increasing our staff and including new technology in our effort to provide the highest quality service," assures the INS letter being mailed to the 200,000 long-deferred, would-be citizens in Southern California.

The letter directs applicants to appear at INS-run centers for new fingerprints, which the agency is doing free of charge.

The missive began going out last month, just before the Fourth of July holiday, which annually prompts the agency to take stock of its naturalization efforts.

Citizenship is the cornerstone of U.S. civic identity, conferring the right to vote, serve on juries and, more simply, to think of oneself as truly an American. But citizenship also has practical value. It allows people to: secure certain jobs; reunite families split by immigration; be shielded from deportation; and qualify for subsidized medical care and other benefits.

Unprecedented numbers of people have been seeking citizenship in recent years, in large part because of a perceived wave of anti-immigrant feeling. But the totals of new citizens sworn in plunged almost 50% in fiscal 1997--to 569,822, down from a record 1.1 million the previous year--because of a congressionally mandated overhaul of a system that failed to check applicants for previous crimes.

Today, the naturalization backlog is nearing 500,000 in the seven-county area alone, the nation's leading magnet for new immigrants. Some applicants have been in the queue for three years or more. The INS says the entire process should take only six months.

"People have definitely been adversely affected by our delays," acknowledged Rosemary Melville, deputy district director in Los Angeles.

However, many remain suspicious that an agency so renowned for its failures can handle a new crush of people seeking "re-fingerprinting"--as the INS calls the latest process--even as waves of more recent applicants must be scheduled to submit fingerprints. Congress, which directed the INS to take over fingerprinting and revamp its naturalization process, has been reluctant to provide additional funding.

"This [apology] is small comfort for people who have been waiting for years and are now no closer to realizing their goal," said Charles Wheeler, senior attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. "There's not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel, and things will probably get worse."

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