Monday, June 23, 2008

A Long Time for Citizenship Interviews!

In D.C. Area, Citizenship Test Is One Of Patience
Local Immigrants Face Longest Wait

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008

Eager to become an American citizen? Don't move to the Washington region. Try Omaha.

The federal agency that handles immigration paperwork has been rolling out tidbits of good -- or less bad -- news about last summer's deluge of naturalization applications, which created a backlog that might prevent hundreds of thousands of would-be citizens from voting in November.

Early last month, the agency announced that it would take an average of 13 to 15 months to process the petitions, not as long as previously predicted but longer than the pre-influx average of seven months.

Then last week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services projected what the processing times would be at the end of September at 70 offices across the country. There was more good news -- for folks in places such as Omaha, that is, where citizenship paperwork is expected to be polished off in 5.8 months.

Washington area applicants will need to preserve their patience.

Maryland petitioners, whose papers go to Baltimore, can expect a 14-month wait, the agency said. Applicants in Southern Virginia, who file in Norfolk, will probably have the second-longest wait in the nation -- 14.6 months.

Those in Northern Virginia and the District? They will face the nation's longest delay -- 14.7 months.

"You would think that D.C. has an inside track," said William Ramos, head of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

"I'll vote next time, if I'm alive," said Reston retiree Apolonio Marin, 69, a Nicaraguan native who applied for citizenship last summer. He is still waiting.

Those comments and the agency's projections underscore a problem that has long frustrated critics of the bureaucratic and sluggish U.S. immigration system: How long applicants wait depends on where they live. And in this election year, some say, the variations are more important and unfair than ever.

"One of the benefits of becoming a citizen is to be able to vote," said Parastoo Zahedi, a Vienna lawyer who heads the Washington area chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Why should their cousin who lives in a jurisdiction that processes their application faster get to vote and those who live in Virginia have to skip the vote?"

Officials with USCIS, which is funded by fees, stop short of saying they need more money. Places with more immigrants are bound to have longer waits, they say.

"It does seem unfair if someone's applying in a small area of the country versus someone applying in Los Angeles or Washington or Detroit or Dallas. And it is unfair," said Bill Wright, a USCIS spokesman. "But if we have more in Washington, D.C., there's really not a whole lot we can do about it. It's based on the demand. It's based on the resources available to us."

USCIS officials say they were overwhelmed by last year's surge, which was triggered by a fee increase and bolstered by interest in the presidential election and tensions over immigration. The cost of an application, including fingerprinting fees, jumped from $410 to $675 on July 30. Between October 2006 and September 2007, USCIS received 1.4 million naturalization applications, nearly twice as many as in the previous 12-month period. Of those, 460,000 arrived in July.

Wright said it was "not appropriate" to estimate how many of the 1.4 million applications would be finalized by Election Day.

The influx did not hit all offices to the same degree, officials said.

In July, the Baltimore immigration office received 4,549 naturalization applications, up from 1,374 in the same month in 2006. Intake at the Washington office, which handles applications from the District and Northern Virginia, jumped from 1,453 in July 2006 to 7,192 last July. Each of those offices had 31 adjudication officers to process all types of applications. Norfolk received 1,590 naturalization petitions in July, a sixfold increase over July 2006. Seven employees were on staff to process them.

"A lot of this is the result of some grass-roots efforts on the ground to get folks to apply for citizenship, and the filings depended on where those efforts were," said Don Neufeld, acting associate director of domestic operations for USCIS. "Some offices were better situated to be able to absorb a surge."

USCIS officials say they are tackling the naturalization backlog by hiring employees and holding citizenship interviews during off hours. Six hundred adjudication officers have been hired nationally, and 637 are in the pipeline, officials said. The agency wants to bring the processing time for naturalization down to a five-month average by 2010.

In February, the Baltimore office began conducting citizenship interviews on one Saturday a month; Saturday interviews will begin this month in the Washington office, which is in Fairfax County. Washington and Baltimore have each added nine adjudication officers; Norfolk, three, officials said.

Surge aside, immigration processing times have long varied by location. It is a topic that generates angst on immigration-related Web sites and uproar among USCIS watchdogs. A report last year by the USCIS ombudsman singled out the variations as one example of the agency's "continued lack of standardization."

Critics say USCIS should be aware enough of immigrant settlement patterns to staff offices accordingly. They also say that delays are not always longest in immigrant-heavy regions: The recent projections put the processing time of Chicago at 8.6 months and that of Yakima, Wash., at 14.1 months.

Prakash Khatri, a District lawyer who served as the USCIS ombudsman from 2003 until the end of February, said his investigations revealed that planning at the national level does not always account for needs in offices such as the one in Norfolk, which Khatri said was already busy with applications from service members who qualify for expedited citizenship. Some offices focus on simple cases to meet "production quotas," Khatri said, then get backed up with complicated ones. Others, he said, are more efficient because of good management or interest from their congressional delegation.

"But there is no excuse for a five-month processing in one part of the country or a 15-month processing in another, when there is a national law that should be administered by the federal government fairly and equitably across the country," Khatri said, referring to the Immigration and Naturalization Act. "This does impact people's lives in terms of benefits and grants and in terms of jobs."

It's all a bit baffling for immigrant applicants.

Marin, the Nicaraguan native who lives in Reston, said he hopes to be able to vote for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in November. He applied for citizenship with his wife and son in June. His daughter applied later and has taken her citizenship test. She must be lucky: She applied in Norfolk.

"I belong to here now," said Marin, who teaches English at Hogar Hispano, a Falls Church program run by Catholic Charities. He has lived in the United States for two decades. "I was trying to vote, that's my biggest concern. For this reason, I'm disappointed."

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Attempts to Deport Navy Airman with pending Citizenship Application!

Amazing what ICE (U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement) does!

DHS tries to deport Navy airman, applicant for citizenship

"At the hearing I was fortunate to be represented by pro bono counsel who had helped me file my original paperwork for residency. The counsel asked the judge to terminate the proceeding based on the Forman Memo put out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement which states that ICE should not initiate removal proceedings against military members who are eligible for naturalization under sections 328 or 329 of the INA. Despite the fact that I had an N-400 application pending based on my military service, ICE objected to the termination and the judge would only grant the motion written by Navy Legal Service Office Mid Atlantic to change venue to Arlington. I have a new hearing date set for July 1, 2008 in Arlington." House testimony of Karla Arambula de Rivera, May 20, 2008.

See for 5 pages of testimony by Karla Arambula de Rivera.

Derivative Citizenship Case

Unpublished BIA (Board of Immigration Appeals) decision on legal custody, derivative citizenship

"We find that the award of "joint legal custody" in this case satisfies the statutory term under section 321(a)(3) of the Act." Matter of Del Cid, A35-235-281 - Dallas, May 3, 2006.

See for 3 page case decision.