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Head of INS Guardedly Hopeful About Cutting Citizenship Delays

Immigration: Lengthy waiting period for applicants could begin to shrink by late summer, Meissner tells Riordan.


WASHINGTON — After months of struggling to cut down on the time it takes to process citizenship applications, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's top official told Mayor Richard Riordan on Friday that she believes the agency may soon turn the corner--perhaps by the end of summer.

Doris Meissner, commissioner of the INS, acknowledged that the agency is struggling to cope with its mounting backlog of applications. Since 1992, the number of immigrants seeking citizenship has skyrocketed from 342,000 to 1.4 million. A quarter of all those people are in Los Angeles.

One result is that the wait for citizenship has lengthened and the INS' backlog of cases has steadily grown, most notably in Los Angeles, where waits longer than 15 months are not uncommon.

In large part, officials believe that the increase is the result of a growing anti-immigrant sentiment, of California's Proposition 187 and of cutbacks in federal welfare, which have made many legal residents eager to secure full citizenship rather than risk the loss of public benefits they may now be receiving.

"I just want people in Los Angeles to understand, as the mayor understands, that we are totally focused on this," Meissner said in an interview after meeting with Riordan. "We're being as aggressive as we can."

In letters and in meetings, Riordan has pressured the INS to improve its service and has complained when previous promises of improvement have gone unfulfilled. In March, Riordan wrote a brusque letter to the commissioner, complaining of the lack of progress in cutting back the agency's Los Angeles backlog.

"On Jan. 13, 1998, when you and I met in Los Angeles, there was a backlog of 325,000 cases in this district," Riordan wrote. "Today, according to the INS in Los Angeles, there are now 400,000 backlogged cases and 200,000 of them have exceeded the 15-month deadline, necessitating new processing for already weary applicants."

Although Riordan's tone in that letter was angry, both the mayor and commissioner said their meeting Friday was pleasant and that each offered whatever help they could provide in tackling the problem.

Among other things, Meissner assured the mayor that although Los Angeles supplies one-quarter of the agency's citizenship applications, it is receiving one-third of the INS' naturalization resources.

In addition, she said that the number of monthly interviews conducted by INS adjudication officers has soared from about 5,000 in December to almost 20,000 in April.

Further progress may not come as quickly, Meissner said, in part because the INS remains a paper-driven organization and retooling that will take some time.

Nevertheless, she said she hopes that the wait for citizenship applicants will soon begin declining.

"I think we'll start to see that sometime late this summer," she said, though she also cautioned: "That's a very guarded prediction."

After the meeting, Riordan declined to criticize Meissner despite his frustrations with the pace of progress.

"They have inherited a really antiquated system," he said. "They're doing the best they can, but it's a very tall mountain to climb."

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