NEW YORK -- More than 2 million immigrants throughout the country are waiting to become citizens of the United States, the largest backlog of naturalization applications since the federal government began keeping records at the turn of the century.
The backlog means that for those in the pipeline -- legal residents of the United States who, for the most part, have already waited five years for the right to apply -- the waiting time for citizenship is up to 18 months, immigration officials said. Before the backlog started increasing in 1996, the normal waiting time was six months.
Advocates for immigrants estimate that, unless emergency measures are taken, the wait could be much longer than 18 months in some places.
"I just think the government has [completely] abandoned these people," said Luke Williams, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
"You know, if anybody else in the United States had to wait two years to get an I.D. or an important piece of paper, it wouldn't be tolerated."
Immigration officials and advocates say the backlog is a result of an inefficient, antiquated agency, interference by Congress and a soaring number of citizenship applications that was spurred by anti-immigrant sentiment and recent laws that cut benefits to noncitizens.
For those eager to become U.S. citizens, any delay is crucial. It could mean the difference in keeping a job, receiving government benefits or being able to bring siblings from abroad. And, of course, without citizenship, immigrants cannot vote.
"I feel American, but I can't even decide who represents me," said Olga, 26, a Russian hairdresser who has lived in Queens for 14 years and did not want to reveal her last name.
She filed her citizenship application two years ago, but with no word on its fate, she has decided to send another application to see if she has better luck this time. "How many times do I have to show them how much I want to become an American citizen?"
The backlog is so great that it has created a secondary one -- people who have waited so long to have their applications reviewed that their criminal background checks have expired after 15 months, forcing them to have their fingerprints retaken.
There are about half a million people in that situation in the six cities with the heaviest flow of applicants: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago and Newark, N.J.
The growing backlog prompted the Immigration and Naturalization Service to ask Congress last year for $150 million to modernize the entire citizenship operation. Four months ago, Congress granted the request and approved an additional $61 million.
About $14 million has been earmarked to begin chipping away at the backlog.
Last month, retired INS officers and other temporary workers were hired and dispatched to Los Angeles, the city with the worst backlog in the nation (405,000 as of Friday).
With the help of a management firm hired last year, the INS has come up with a blueprint for changes that it says will eliminate the backlog by the end of 1999, immigration officials said.
"There is a plan and a way to get there," said Eric Andrus, an INS spokesman in Washington. "We just need time." He called the elimination of the backlog "one of the agency's top priorities."
But immigration lawyers and advocates for immigrants, some of whom marched outside the immigration district offices in lower Manhattan last week to protest the backlog, predict that the agency will be unable to meet its own deadline.
Williams of the Los Angeles coalition chuckled when asked what he thought of the agency's plans.
"Yes, yes, they announced the changes a month ago with a lot of fanfare," Williams said. "But unless they are ready to send rTC small army of people out here, it's not going to be enough to make a noticeable dent."
Williams said that there are crates full of files in the hallways of the district immigration office in Los Angeles. Even now, he added, his clients are unable to get immigration officials to answer simple questions about missing forms or future appointments.
Pub Date: 4/20/98