Last summer, Sidney Bonilla applied to become a United States citizen, taking a step toward security, empowerment and the right to vote in the country he has called home for half his life.
But seven months later, the El Salvador native waits, one of more than a million applicants caught in an unprecedented backlog of naturalization cases nationwide. He is frustrated with the process and the uncertainty that comes with the long wait.
"This is where I grew up; this is my home," said Bonilla, a construction worker in Prince George's County. "I really want to have everything in order."
Spurred by a mid-2007 increase in application fees, a hot national immigration debate and a campaign by advocates to register new voters, about 1.4 million legal immigrants completed naturalization applications last year with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, double the 702,000 who did so in 2006.
In Maryland, 21,557 applications were pending at the end of December, an 83 percent increase over December 2006, when there were 11,785, the USCIS reported.
"This has never happened; not in recent memory," said Chris Rhatigan, a USCIS spokeswoman.
As a result, average wait times have doubled, from seven months to between 16 and 18. Applicants for other immigration services can expect delays as well, but officials said they could not estimate by how much.
Federal officials have pledged to reduce the backlog by hiring 1,500 new employees, training existing staff to be adjudicators, offering overtime pay and even asking hundreds of staffers to come out of retirement. But immigrant advocates argue that the efforts fall short and have expressed outrage that would-be citizens eager to vote in this year's presidential election might not get the chance.
"It is very frustrating for people who want to be citizens and want to vote, but are unable to get there," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery County Democrat who is pushing for an increase in state funds to promote citizenship. "It's horrendous what has happened. The whole point of the new fees was to give better service. So now they say, we are going to charge you more, but you're going to have to wait longer."
Last July, immigration officials rolled out a new fee structure not only for citizenship applications - which increased 80 percent to $595 - but for nearly every immigration form. Officials hailed the fees as a revenue generator that would reduce processing times through 2008 and lead to a 20 percent reduction by the end of 2009.
Critics argue the agency is not hiring enough staffers to shrink the backlog, but Rhatigan said that 2008 is a "transition year" and that the agency hopes to offer more timely service by fiscal year 2009.
"We are going to address this increase in applications while at the same time continuing to move forward and making the improvements that need to be made," she said.
Paul Zilly, who coordinates citizenship classes at CASA of Maryland, said students who submitted their applications last summer are still waiting for the immigration service to schedule their interviews, the final step in the process.
Legal immigrants are generally eligible to become citizens after living in the U.S. for five years as legal permanent residents or "green card" holders.
Meanwhile, applicants' lives are at a standstill. Many people are afraid to schedule a trip or change their address, because they could miss the sought-after notification of their interview date, Zilly said. And finding out the status of one's case is difficult. Zilly has sent written requests for status updates on his students' behalf. The replies typically state few details other than the applicant must continue to wait, Zilly said.
"I think there is a great degree of frustration and uncertainty because it is so difficult to obtain information on their case," he said. "They are worried that since they have not received an invitation to the interview, there must be some problem with their case."
Bonilla's frustration grows by the day. He and his wife applied together, just before the new fees went into effect last July. She became a citizen in November, but Bonilla waits.
Last summer, the father of two had to request a one-year extension of his green card, which was set to expire. He had to visit the Baltimore immigration office to prove his citizenship was pending.
Bonilla, who left El Salvador for Maryland at age 12, could have applied for citizenship a decade ago. But he didn't think much about the issue until recently, considering the increasing fees and his new political awareness.
He said he wants to participate in this year's presidential election in part to have a voice on the polarizing issue of immigration. "I would like to be able to vote - that's one of the most powerful tools we have in this country," he said.
For now, he's leaning toward Republican Sen. John McCain, a proponent of immigration reform that would offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.