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A Waiting Game

Delay-ridden naturalization system is discouraging many potential applicants, reversing trend that added record numbers of citizens two years ago.

September 18, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The complex process by which immigrants become U.S. citizens has virtually come full circle during the 1990s.

The system careened wildly from a moderate demand early in the decade to unprecedented numbers of new citizens in the mid-1990s to what is now a record backlog of almost 2 million applicants nationwide on the new-citizen waiting list--one quarter of them in Southern California.

During that span, applying for citizenship has gone from what many considered an intimidating and inaccessible matter to a relatively user-friendly system to its current incarnation--a delay-plagued procedure that is once again scaring off would-be applicants, even as federal officials strive to complete a new make-over.

Whereas the benefits of citizenship were being conferred on a previously unknown scale just two years ago, enabling masses of immigrants to become full-fledged Americans and to exercise their right to vote, many are now caught in an ever-tightening bottleneck, growing increasingly frustrated.

The abrupt shifts have left many community activists skeptical about whether the heady days of just two years ago--when a record number of immigrants took the citizenship oath--will ever return.

"We were really on the right track there for a while with citizenship," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino think tank that has studied the issue extensively. "But in the past 10 years, we've taken two steps forward and three steps backwards."

INS Officials Promise Reforms

Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, insists that the system will be back on track in a year or so, better than ever. The INS points to additional funds and staffing, along with improved automation and new safeguards instituted after congressional Republicans assailed the program for lax procedures.

"We don't want anyone not to apply for citizenship because it's a cumbersome process or it takes too long," said Rosemary Melville, the INS' deputy district director in Los Angeles. "The good news is, things are getting better."

For instance, the agency's Los Angeles district has scheduled 38,000 citizenship interviews for next month--more than three times the number conducted in October 1997. But other problems persist: The agency still hasn't figured out how to meet the heavy demand for fingerprint services from citizenship applicants, especially in Los Angeles.

Moreover, some of the INS' optimism hinges on the prospective availability of $171 million in additional funding for next year. That proposal still needs the approval of skeptical Republican lawmakers, who are dismissive of the agency's ability to improve a system they say went awry.

"The INS has come in at the eleventh hour, asking for more money from Congress," complained Allen Kaye, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House immigration subcommittee. "That is not the mark of an agency that is handling the citizenship crisis. . . . There are still terrible problems in the system."

With so many obstacles, many doubt that the momentum of 1996 can ever be regained, despite the continuing interest among immigrants in securing citizenship.

Among other factors, the cost of applying for citizenship is more than doubling in January, from $95 to $225, a fact that will discourage many of the working poor who made up the bulk of the recent new Americans.

In addition, Congress has modified social service cuts affecting noncitizens, which were a hallmark of the 1996 welfare overhaul. The changes are easing the pressure on many, especially the elderly, to become U.S. citizens.

Overall, some see the loss of a historic opportunity to fully integrate a large population of legal immigrants into U.S. society.

"There are enough people out there to sustain massive citizenship drives for years to come, but I don't think we'll see that," said Greg Simons, citizenship coordinator for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "Once the process corrects itself, which eventually it will, I think we'll see more people filing for citizenship again. But not in the numbers we did."

Welfare Changes Spurred Increase

Until the beginning of the 1990s, citizenship remained a kind of terra incognita into which relatively few immigrants, especially those from Mexico, opted to venture. The Los Angeles area, with its swelling population of recent arrivals from Mexico and Central America, had a particularly low rate of naturalization, as the procedure is known.

Along with dreading the process, many immigrants were hesitant to cut formal links with their homelands--despite years, sometimes decades, of residence in the United States, and in many cases the presence of U.S.-born children. An oft-repeated rumor was that new citizens had to stomp on a Mexican flag to show their new allegiance.

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