It will take almost three years for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to clear the naturalization backlog due to a surge in applications last summer, agency officials say.
According to previously unpublished figures that USCIS has given the Migration Policy Institite, during May, June, and July 2007, the agency received 737,223 applications — three-and-a-half times the number of applications (207,536) received during the same period a year earlier. As of October 2007, USCIS had almost 1 million naturalization applications pending approval.
The surge caused the processing time to more than double — now standing at 16 to 18 months for applications filed during the summer of 2007, compared to the six-to-seven-month timeframe for applications filed in 2006.
The increase coincided with the agency's January 2007 announcement of a rise in the fee for adult naturalization (N-400) applications from $330 to $595 beginning July 30, 2007.
Officials attribute the application increase to several other factors as well, including citizenship campaigns launched across the country, the charged political climate of the immigration debate, and the 2008 presidential elections.
In response to the "summer surge" in naturalization applications, USCIS expanded work hours for its employees, detailed 84 staff members to its application processing centers, and hired additional contract staff. The agency also plans to hire 1,800 additional employees, including retired USCIS workers, to help cope with the increased workload.
USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez has stated that he hopes these efforts will reduce processing times to presurge levels by April 2010.
Applicants, several members of Congress, and immigrant advocacy groups have raised concerns over these delays. Among the concerns are that the backlog will prevent recent applicants from naturalizing in time to vote in the November 2008 presidential elections. Immigrant advocates have stated that USCIS should have anticipated the surge, given that the factors could have been predicted.
Members of Congress have also pointed out that when USCIS first proposed the fee increase, the agency promised this action would result in decreased processing times.
In testimony before Congress, and in the USCIS press release announcing the fee schedule, USCIS officials stated that the fee increase would cut average processing times for naturalization applications by 20 percent by the end of FY 2009.
DHS Issues Final Real ID Rule
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released final regulations in January for implementing the licensing provisions of the Real ID Act of 2005. Congress passed the Real ID Act because the September 11 terrorists obtained multiple state driver's licenses relatively easily.
As of May 11, 2008, federal agencies will no longer accept driver's licenses or identification cards from states not in compliance with the act, unless the states request an extension from DHS. Only driver's licenses from states that comply with the law will be accepted for entering federal buildings or boarding airplanes.
Real ID-compliant licenses must include security features, such as digital photographs and machine-readable technology. In addition, license holders must have shown proof of US citizenship or legal status to obtain the license, and the state offices issuing licenses must meet security standards.
States that receive DHS extensions will have until December 1, 2014, to issue Real ID compliant drivers licenses to drivers born after December 1, 1964, and until December 1, 2017, to drivers born on or before December 1, 1964. The extension requests must be submitted to DHS by March 31, 2008.
Various states and organizations have objected to the implementation of Real ID, stating that the law will encroach on individual privacy and undermine the integrity of national identification databases. In addition, several states have objected to the large cost of implementing the program they must bear.
Backlogs Due to Background Checks. In order to reduce a large backlog in immigration benefits applications, USICS will grant permanent residence to applicants whose cases are otherwise complete but who have not yet received Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) name-check clearance. The new rule will affect applicants whose FBI name-check cases have been pending for more than six months. FBI name-check clearance had been required for all applicants prior to USCIS approval of permanent residence applications. Federal lawmakers, judges, and the USCIS Ombudsman have all criticized this requirement, stating that the process is too time consuming and that it does not have any impact on national security since most immigration applicants are already living in the United States while their FBI clearance is pending.
H-2A Visas. USCIS, the US Department of Labor (DOL), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a series of proposed rule modifications to the H-2A temporary worker program. The U.S. government says the modifications will make the hiring process easier for employers. H-2A visas are nonimmigrant visas that grant temporary admission to foreign workers who perform agricultural labor. The proposed rules include allowing employers to petition for multiple unnamed H-2A beneficiaries, accepting employers' attestation that they could not find U.S. workers to fill labor needs (instead of obtaining a certification from DOL that no U.S. workers are available), and allowing local prevailing wage surveys to be used in determining the wages paid to H-2A workers. In addition, the proposed rules would increase the civil penalty for employers who violate various terms of the H-2A program and would allow H-2A workers to begin working for a new employer prior to USCIS approval provided the new employer is enrolled in the federal E-Verify program.
New Immigrants' Naturalization Rates. Among immigrants who became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2006, the median amount of time between date of lawful permanent residence and date of naturalization was seven years according to a DHS report. This is one year less than for immigrants naturalizing in 2005 and the lowest median amount of time since 1975. Under current law, most lawful permanent residents must wait five years to be eligible for naturalization.
Arizona Employer Law Upheld. U.S. District Court Judge Neil V. Wake once again upheld an Arizona law that revokes employers' business licenses if they are found to have "knowingly" or "intentionally" hired unauthorized immigrants. The law also requires Arizona employers to use the federal E-verify program to determine the work eligibility of all employees hired after January 1, 2008. Judge Wake rejected the arguments brought forth by a coalition of business and Latino groups. In his ruling, Judge Wake determined that federal law does not preempt states from taking away the business licenses of employers of unauthorized immigrants, nor does the law deny employers due process. The Legal Arizona Workers Act (A.R.S. sec. 23-211 to 23-214) went into effect on January 1, 2008, although Arizona county attorneys had stated their intent not to enforce the law pending the judge's decision.
Employer Law in Valley Park, MO. U.S. District Court Judge E. Richard Webber upheld a controversial law enacted by the City of Valley Park, Missouri, which gives the city the ability to suspend an employer's business license if it finds that the employer hired an unauthorized worker. The law states that employers would not be penalized if they had previously verified the employment status of the unauthorized employee through the federal E-Verify program.
Rental License Ordinance in Farmers Branch, TX. Dallas suburb Farmers Branch passed a new ordinance that bars unauthorized immigrants from renting homes or apartments. The new ordinance requires all prospective tenants to get licenses from the city authorities. Before issuing licenses, city officials will ask U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to determine the immigration status of each applicant. Unauthorized immigrants will not be given a rental license. A federal judge ruled last summer that a previous ordinance barring landlords from renting to unauthorized immigrants was unconstitutional. That ordinance was not based on a license requirement. The new ordinance is thus a fresh attempt by Farmers Branch to achieve its original purpose.