Citizenship Applicants Can Expect 18 Month Wait

February 6, 2008

The average wait time for naturalization has increased to 18 months, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data shows. Applicants who filed after July 1, 2007 can not expect to obtain U.S. citizenship in time to vote in the November presidential election.

Due to July's fee increase, the upcoming presidential election, an intense national debate on immigration, and various education and citizenship drives, the number of naturalization applications in 2007 increased 96% over the previous fiscal year.

Speaking to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, USCIS Director Emilio T. Gonzalez understood this number as good news. He stated that "applicants for these immigration benefits are demonstrating a deep desire to participate fully in our country's civic life... Applying for citizenship and immigration benefits is more than an administrative process; it is a life-changing event."

Yet this unprecedented increase, combined with USCIS's limited preparation for it, has led to the agency experiencing significant backlogs. This is affecting more than half a million applicants. The average processing time for naturalization has increased to 18 months. Family-based adjustment-of-status (permanent residence) applications increased to an average of 12 months. While delays vary from city to city, New York has one of the highest processing delays, along with Los Angeles and Miami. Liam Boyle, Staff Attorney with the CUNY Citizenship and Immigrant Project highlights how this plays out in individuals' lives. "Many of my clients are from low income households. Now they are faced with the double whammy of paying almost double for some applications, without any firm guarantee as to when their cases will be resolved."

Gonzalez explained how USCIS is handling the increase in applications, targeting changes in three main elements: staffing, technology, and administrative procedures. USCIS will spend over two years worth of application fees to achieve these changes and will continue to look for ways to achieve further efficiency. They expect their plan to reduce processing times to six months by April 2010.

Many immigrant advocacy groups maintain that this timeline is unacceptable for U.S. residents who are striving to demonstrate their commitment to this nation and have their voices heard in the democratic process. Gonzalez has responded that USCIS "will not forsake integrity and sound decision making in favor of increased productivity, or compromise national security". Until the backlog is cleared up, USCIS states it will regularly post updates on delays to their website homepage. Immigrant advocacy groups further urge the agency to work closely with Congress, the FBI, national and local immigration advocacy and naturalization service providers, and private businesses, to address the backlog.

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