Wednesday, June 16, 2004 - Wait for Houston immigrants worst in Texas - Wait for Houston immigrants worst in Texas

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June 15, 2004, 11:17AM

Immigration wait is Texas' worst
50,000 people in area seek documents
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
• Graphic: Immigration Review Delays

They camp out on the street half the night and when the doors open at 6 a.m., they are greeted by security officers, a metal detector and a sign that reads:

"Houston District. Our Mission is to Provide Accurate, Secure and Timely Immigration Benefits, Delivered with the Highest Degree of Quality and Professionalism."

Then they wait.

In Houston, they wait longer than anywhere else in Texas.

Houston's backlog, where it can take anywhere from 18 months to two years to receive permanent residency, is one of the longer waits in the country, longer than in Boston, Los Angeles and San Diego.

About 50,000 people in the Houston area are waiting for immigration documents, such as those for permanent residency and naturalization. For some, the wait has been as long as five years.

With a 2006 federal deadline looming to shorten waiting times to six months or less, Houston and other district offices of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services across the country are scrambling to deal with a backlog of applications from 3.6 million people.

In New York, for example, some 100,000 immigrants are waiting for citizenship. The problem has gotten so bad across the country that Congress will hear testimony this week from the United States Citizen & Immigration Services (USCIS) and others, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association based in Washington, D.C.

"If it took this long for programs or benefits available to citizens like Social Security, there would be outrage and riot," said Jonathan Blazer, spokesman for Project Voice, an immigrant rights program of the American Friends Service Committee, based in Philadelphia. "This is a problem that has been too neglected because it's the immigrants who are suffering."

Still, the long waits in Houston are shorter than they used to be, after the Immigration and Naturalization Service was reorganized 15 months ago into two agencies, including the new U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services.

In 2000, for example, it took more than 3 1/2 years to process an application for permanent residency in Houston.

Blame on bureaucracy
Officials have blamed the ongoing backlog on bureaucratic errors and security concerns after the 9/11 attacks. In Houston, the office has also seen turnover, with three directors in three years.

"The old agency was unresponsive," said Hipolito Acosta, who was appointed director in 2002. "We needed a lot of reform, and we still have a long way to go, but we're working smarter and making people accountable."

Houston immigration attorney Charles Foster said addressing the backlog, which he calls a "way of life," has been a "Herculean task." Although efforts have been made to address the problem, it has never been successfully resolved, he said.

But why some waits across the country continue to worsen is unclear.

Judy Golub, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the backlog stems from poor coordination between federal agencies and inadequate funding.

"People point fingers at (USCIS), but the White House, Congress and (USCIS) all need to step up to the plate and be involved in forging a solution for problems they all helped create,"she said.

When President Bush took office, he promised to welcome immigrants "with open arms, not with endless lines." He said the old INS suffered from its dual missions of service and enforcement, including competing priorities, insufficient accountability and lack of consistent policies.

Since the reorganization, some district offices have made significant improvements. El Paso is processing applications it received in February of this year for permanent residency. In March, the El Paso Times reported that the backlog of applications had shrunk by half in one year.

Other Texas cities have seen similar success. In San Antonio, those submitting applications for citizenship or permanent residency can have their cases completed in as little as four months.

In Houston, officials say the push is for both faster and friendlier service.

"It used to be to go to the office it was scary," said Ghulam Bombaywala, president of the Pakistan American Association of Greater Houston. "Now, it's friendly service. You don't see the long lines there anymore."

Helping hands
Acosta said such improvements are the result of specific changes, including a new task force dedicated to working on the oldest cases and a community outreach team whose goal is to help people navigate the application process.

"People deserve an answer," Acosta said. "I want them to feel that when they deal with USCIS, it's not a nightmare."

Yet, for some of the 50,000 people waiting here in the Houston area, the experience has been a trying one.

Bianca Springer, 29, holds a graduate degree in conflict analysis and resolution, but as she and her husband, Jerry, sat in the USCIS office last week, she said she should have pursued a degree in bureaucracy.

After 18 months trying to resolve issues around her application for permanent residency since moving to Houston from Miami, where she originally filed the paperwork, she sees no end in sight.

Letters and phone calls to her senators and to the national headquarters of the USCIS haven't helped.

"The first time I came to this office they told me there wasn't anything else to do but wait," she said. "The second time, they asked me why I didn't submit a form, and the third time they told me my records hadn't been transferred from the Miami office."

District officials say they understand the frustrations but that they're doing the best they can and working hard to meet the president's goals. Representatives for the national and regional offices declined to talk about the waiting times in Houston compared with other districts. Nor would they comment on a list of government figures showing the disparities in wait time.

"We're a brand new 15-month-old agency. Did we have cases we inherited from legacy INS? Of course we did. But we're not going to dwell on the past," said Maria Elena Garcia-Upton, the region spokeswoman for USCIS. "Our main goal now is to focus on meeting our goal of six-month processing times, and we are working fast and furious."

Two years of waiting
That won't be fast enough for Suliman Al-Rasheed, a retired executive with Saudi Aramco, an energy company. In 2002, after taking early retirement, he moved from Saudi Arabia to Houston with his wife, who is a U.S. citizen, and their infant son.

Two years and more than $7,000 later, he still doesn't know his status.

"I want to start a business, am I going to be approved or no? Shall I pack up my family and go, or stay?" he asked. "I understand the background checks need to be done, but somebody needs to rethink the system again. There doesn't seem to be any communication."

Part of the delay is more extensive background checks since Sept. 11.

"We want to give the right benefit to the right person at the right time without sacrificing security," Acosta said.

Last year in Houston, 10,971 people took the oath of allegiance required for citizenship, while another 3,660 had their applications denied.

Acosta is optimistic. He says he can see progress when he arrives at work each morning and the lines don't wind for blocks like they used to. He also said he gets letters of appreciation instead of complaints.

"We're going to meet the six-month goal. It's not a matter of if we're going to get there or not, we will."


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