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California and the West

INS Is Sued Over Delays in Processing Applications

Court: Backlog is in program for children and spouses of immigrants who have permanent legal resident status.

August 29, 2000|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A class action lawsuit filed in federal court accuses the Immigration and Naturalization Service of placing thousands of immigrants at risk of deportation by failing to promptly process their applications to remain in the United States.

The lawsuit was filed Friday on behalf of the children and spouses of immigrants who have obtained permanent legal resident status under a 1986 amnesty law. A subsequent program, known as Family Unity, allows the relatives of those residents to live and work in the United States while their own applications for permanent residency are processed.

But the INS has compiled a two-year backlog, leaving thousands of applicants, mostly in California, "out in the cold," said Margaret McCormick, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Law Foundation, one of three legal centers that filed the lawsuit.

The suit asks that the court find the INS in violation of the Immigration Act of 1990 for failing to perform its duties in processing applications. It also asks that the INS be ordered to immediately process all Family Unity applications and reduce the processing time to 90 days in all service centers.

"It's a continuing problem with the INS," McCormick said. "There's a total disregard for the amount of chaos they cause in people's lives when they refuse to adjudicate what they're supposed to adjudicate."

Because of the delays, plaintiffs in the lawsuit say they face deportation, have lost jobs or cannot find work, McCormick said. The lawsuit alleges that they also have trouble enrolling in colleges. Attorneys estimate that 11,000 people in the United States are affected by the backlog.

William Yates, deputy executive associate commissioner with the INS, said he could not comment on the lawsuit but he acknowledged the application backlog.

"We're trying within the budget limitations to be as aggressive as we can," Yates said. "We're hoping when the 2001 budget is passed, we'll get more money for backlog reduction."

He said delays in processing Family Unity applications stem from an unforeseeable surge in applications for naturalization, a much larger backlog problem that has affected millions of immigrants.

"Over the past couple of years, INS has really focused its efforts on improving the naturalization process, improving the fingerprinting process," Yates said. "A lot of resources have been poured into that."

Two years ago, the backlog for naturalization applications reached 2 million, Yates said, prompting the INS commission to set a goal of reducing that backlog by the end of the current fiscal year. But that effort is prompting other types of applications, including Family Unity, to suffer, Yates said.

Of the four INS service centers that handle Family Unity applications, the California office has the largest backlog. Yates said it "does not have enough people to do all the work we're asking it to do."

The delays have transformed a program that was intended to keep families together into a bureaucratic roadblock to jobs and higher education, attorneys argue. Many applicants have been in the country for at least 12 years, including those who arrived as children.

Some applicants arrived in the United States too late to be eligible for amnesty under the 1986 law. Congress subsequently implemented the Family Unity program, which allows a family member to remain in the United States with a parent or spouse who has obtained legal status while applying for permission to stay.

Attorneys involved in the suit say the program has worked only in theory.

Guillermo Ocampo, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has lived in the United States since 1985. He is the son of a naturalized citizen. The Anaheim man, who is eligible for the Family Unity program, attended high school and two years of college.

According to the lawsuit, Ocampo submitted an application two years ago this month to remain in the United States, as well as for permission to work. That application still has not been processed. Ocampo received a letter from the INS in July saying the agency was adjudicating applications from Dec. 11, 1997.

Another Anaheim resident, Gustavo Escutia, applied for Family Unity benefits and was approved. But successful applicants must reapply every two years.

Escutia's approval expired May 8, 1999. On April 28, 1999, he applied for an extension. According to the lawsuit, his application has not been processed more than a year later. Without it, he does not have authorization to work.

For several months, immigration attorneys have seen the impact of the backlog on their clients, and they raised the issue in meetings with INS officials, said Nadine Wettstein of the American Immigration Law Foundation. The attorneys were told that processing Family Unity applications is not a priority.

In May, attorneys sent Yates a letter demanding that the delays be eliminated. "We didn't receive any response to the letter," Wettstein said.

The attorneys argue that the problem is not one of legislation.

"The statute in this case is really very good," Wettstein said. "Congress said in 1990 the INS would provide these benefits, protection from deportation and employment authorization. . . . We don't really need any more legislation. What the INS needs to do is do their jobs."

The lawsuit names as defendants the INS, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Doris Meissner, commissioner of the INS.

"I don't like to see any customer wait this long," Yates said. "We will do everything we can to try and ease the problem for these customers."

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Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this story.

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