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Thursday, June 17, 2004

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: AP - Washington, D.C.: U.S. vows to cut immigration backlog

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: AP - Washington, D.C.: U.S. vows to cut immigration backlog

U.S. vows to cut immigration backlog

By JENNIFER C. KERR
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration pledged Thursday to eliminate long application processing delays for millions of immigrants seeking work visas, legal residency or citizenship in the United States.

The head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Eduardo Aguirre, told Congress his bureau has a plan to erase the application backlog by September 2006. Steps include reallocating resources and modernizing outdated computer systems.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, Aguirre said the goal is to "provide the right benefit to the right person in the right amount of time, and prevent the wrong person from accessing immigration benefits."

The bureau has about 6.1 million applications pending for U.S. citizenship, green cards and various visas. Of those, 3.7 million are considered backlogged, meaning they've been pending for more than six months, Aguirre said.

"Those aliens who follow the law and dutifully apply for immigration status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should not be stranded in legal limbo," said subcommittee Chairman John Hostettler, R-Ind.



Aguirre acknowledged the backlog is a serious problem, but said he expects to reduce processing times to less than six months - a goal set by President Bush.

Democrats expressed skepticism.

"We have heard promises about the backlogs many, many, many times," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California.

In addition to making better use of technology, the bureau plans to save time by storing applicants' biometric information, such as fingerprints, to save steps should they decide to change their immigration status.

It also plans to divert resources from delay-free offices to cities with backlogs.

San Antonio and Anchorage, Alaska, had some of the best performance records for completing applications. Houston, Atlanta, Honolulu and Cleveland ranked among the worst.

Overall, the average wait for naturalization is 14 months. Green card applications linger for 22 months on average.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, questioned whether the bureau needed more money to eliminate the backlog. Aguirre said no.

The bottom line, Aguirre said: "We need to increase productivity by almost 20 percent with the same people that we have and better technology."

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