Naturalization Applications Spike Ahead of Election More than a million legal immigrants applied to naturalize last year, a sharp spike driven by fee increases and — for many — a desire to vote in this year's presidential race. Now the head of Citizenship and Immigration Services tells a congressional panel how he plans to speed up processing.
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Naturalization Applications Spike Ahead of Election

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Naturalization Applications Spike Ahead of Election

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Naturalization Applications Spike Ahead of Election

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Last year, twice as many people as usual - about 1.4 million - applied for U.S. citizenship. The government says it's so swamped it'll take more than twice as long as usual to process those applications - 16 to 18 months. That delay means that the applicants won't become citizens in time to vote in this year's presidential election. And a House panel grilled the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services about the issue.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: A lot of things drove immigrants to apply for citizenship. Some responded to an ongoing crackdown against illegal migrants, which they say makes even legal noncitizens feel vulnerable. Advocacy groups also mounted a big citizenship drive, encouraging immigrants to have a voice in this year's presidential election.

When the delay in processing was first announced, some cried foul, accusing a Republican administration of blocking new voters who may lean Democratic. The immigration agency flatly denied that.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the spike was an agency fee hike that took effect July 30th.

Fred Tsao is with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Mr. FRED TSAO (Policy Director, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights): We warned that such a steep increase would create a surge in citizenship and other applications that USCIS must be prepared to handle, and indeed could have seen coming as early as last January.

LUDDEN: Emilio Gonzalez, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services -or CIS - says he did see a general increase coming…

Mr. EMILIO GONZALEZ (Director, Citizenship and Immigration Services): What we did not anticipate - and I'll be very honest with you - is a 350 percent increase in one month.

LUDDEN: Gonzalez says his agency has added shifts and hired extra contractors. It plans to hire 1,500 new employees, but Gonzalez says there's only so much you can speed up.

Mr. GONZALEZ: We are required to interview every single individual that applies for citizenship; that is something that we will not abdicate; we won't subcontract. So the issue then becomes: How do we get more professional immigration officers to the frontlines?

LUDDEN: Director Gonzalez said he did not want to sacrifice security for speed, and he repeatedly blamed slow FBI background checks. Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren said she would ask the FBI director to answer for that.

Committee members said they'd give Gonzalez whatever extra resources he needed and practically begged him to ask for something, but Gonzalez insisted it was not a question of more resources, which prompted this from Democrat John Conyers.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): If this isn't an issue of resources, I don't know a resource shortage when I see it. We're real short, and we got to do something about it real quickly.

LUDDEN: Rosemary Jenks of NumbersUSA lobbies for lower immigration levels. She says for years, the immigration agency has lurched from crisis to crisis without solving systemic problems.

Ms. ROSEMARY JENKS (NumbersUSA): This is an agency that's still paper-based. They've had about six plans to change that - it's still paper based. You know, what - we have to get to the basics, a computer system that works.

LUDDEN: Sure enough, back inside the hearing, the immigration agency's Deputy Director said a five-year transformation is under way to computerize the agency's files, and it should start showing results this summer. Immigrant rights groups ask that all those who applied to naturalize last summer be sworn in as citizens by July 4th. Nothing from today's hearings suggest that's likely to happen.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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