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Friday, June 18, 2004

Omaha.com - Immigration office targets red tape

Omaha.com
Published Friday
June 18, 2004

Immigration office targets red tape
BY CINDY GONZALEZ
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
While the Omaha immigration office that serves Nebraska and Iowa processes most key applications faster than the national average, it still has a ways to go before reaching the target announced Thursday - six months of processing time.

The quicker turnaround time, along with a two-year goal to wipe out the country's 3.7 million "backlogged" applications, were parts of a plan presented to a House subcommittee by Eduardo Aguirre, director of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The strategy is intended to smooth the path for eligible immigrants to become permanent legal residents and U.S. citizens. Steps to carry out the plan include reallocating resources and modernizing computers.

Currently, the national average to complete a permanent residency application is about 22 months. Federal workers in Omaha do it quicker, in about 12 months, said Maria Elena Garcia, regional bureau spokeswoman in Dallas.

For citizenship applications, Omaha's processing time is about the same as the national average of 14 months, officials said.

Jerry Heinauer, director of the bureau's Omaha office, commended his staff for reducing the local backlog.

"We're in pretty good shape," he said.

He said the Omaha office had 4,828 citizenship applications pending a year ago, and now it's down to 3,594.

Pending applications for permanent residency decreased from 2,163 earlier this year to 1,558, Heinauer said.

Backlogs of immigrant benefit applications grew during the 1990s. Overall, federal officials reported a 77 percent increase from 1993 to 2001. Contributing factors were a rise in applications and hiring delays.

The goal of eliminating the backlog of applications would fulfill a 2000 campaign promise of President Bush.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, said Thursday that he was encouraged by the Bush administration's plan. He said he will encourage his colleagues to provide necessary funding and oversight.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, in a press release, said the strategy is well-meaning but would be fruitless if immigration policy doesn't change.

"Instead of hiring more bureaucrats to process people faster, Congress needs to reform the policy that created the backlogs in the first place," said Dan Stein, the group's executive director.

He also said efficiency should not come at the expense of national security.

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