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Backlog of Immigrant Paperwork Growing

March 29, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Four years ago, as a presidential candidate hoping to draw Latino votes, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush vowed to slash the backlog of applications for legal immigration. No one would have to wait longer than six months, he promised.

Despite that resolve, the opposite has happened -- more people than ever are facing longer-than-ever delays.

Green cards that would have taken 14 months to process in 2001 are now averaging 33 months. The number of pending applications for such things as replacing a lost green card and obtaining citizenship has shot up nearly 60%, to about 6.2 million. Cases more than 6 months old have increased by 89% since 2000, from 1.8 million to 3.4 million, according to the government.

The main reason for the delays is the increased security checks since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Bush administration. But congressional investigators and other critics say insufficient funding, lack of personnel and other shortfalls are also to blame.

The problems with the system have been very real in the life of Elerida Rodrigo, a soft-spoken nurse from the Philippines. Rodrigo, who lives in Torrance, met all the legal requirements for a green card long ago, but it took eight years before she recently got the word that her application had been approved.

"I prayed that the people taking care of my case would be enlightened by the Holy Spirit," said Rodrigo, 34. She was so relieved when she got the news, she said, that it felt like "one of the thorns in my heart came out."

The costs and consequences of the growing delays go beyond personal heartache. Businesses that rely on foreign professionals are facing logistical headaches and added legal costs to maintain their workforces. Family members sponsoring a relative have died while the process dragged on. And some immigrants have lapsed into illegality, risking deportation, because work permits or other papers have expired.

"Even though we say we want immigrants to go through the legal process and not come here illegally, we make the legal process as cumbersome and difficult as we can," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood). "That is encouraging the very illegality we are trying to deter."

Annual levels of immigration have held steady since the terrorist attacks. Now the growing backlog raises questions about the ability of the system to handle the additional load that would be created by the president's proposed guest worker program. As many as 8 million to 12 million illegal immigrants could file for legal status.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the arm of the Department of Homeland Security that inherited the work from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, is the agency struggling with the effect of the increased security checks and scarce resources.

"All of these factors combined to put us where we are today, which is digging out of a very deep hole," said William Yates, head of operations for the immigration agency.

The agency will soon send Congress a backlog elimination plan that is expected to promise that Bush's six-month goal can still be met -- but not until 2006.

At bottom, congressional investigators and outside critics say, the agency was simply unprepared to handle its new challenge. Nor has the government assigned a high enough priority to overcoming the obstacles and clearing the backlogs.

"Our government has spent a huge sum of money in elevating the security and the equipment at airports," Yates said. "We have had the mandate. We have not had the funding."

Without question, heightened security concerns have been a big factor in the growth of delays and backlogs. Before Sept. 11, for instance, the government ran full security checks on only some kinds of immigration applicants, such as those seeking citizenship. Now, every applicant must undergo full screening, causing the workload to balloon.

Full Security Checks

Immigration is performing full checks on 7 million applicants a year, compared with 2.5 million before the attacks, Yates said. Out of 4,500 officers who handle immigration applications, 1,000 have been relegated to do nothing but security checks.

In addition, errors have led to costly setbacks. In late 2001, when a security check conducted by the FBI failed to flag a suspected terrorist who was seeking citizenship, the immigration agency had to recheck 3.2 million applicants to make sure there were no other mistakes.

"We had to put naturalization cases on hold," Yates said. "It put us further in the hole."

More delays resulted when immigration case officers were diverted to handle a controversial registration program for men from predominantly Muslim countries.

Efforts to make the system friendlier and more efficient created their own problems. A national toll-free call center was set up to handle questions and ease some of the burden on immigration district officers.

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