Frustrations Mount Amid Immigration Agency Delays

Staff Reporter of the Sun
March 10, 2008

With each of the 19 college applications and a dozen or so scholarship requests Rony Perez completed this winter, he included a short note next to the question asking about his citizenship status. He isn't a citizen yet, he wrote, but he will be soon.

Now, he is not so sure. In addition to the usual anxiety of any high school senior waiting to hear whether his chosen schools will accept him, Mr. Perez, a Dominican immigrant who lives in East New York, is worried his dream of becoming a citizen could be delayed months, and maybe years. He is a member of the Honors Society at the Frederick Douglass Academy, he regularly volunteers, and he is the treasurer of a local chapter of the community organization ACORN, but he is also worried that confusion over his status could affect his chances for scholarships.

"I have so much pride for this country, and I'm a good American," Mr. Perez, who has lived in New York City for 17 of his 18 years, said. "I applied, but nothing has happened, and I'm frustrated."

Mr. Perez is among a growing number of immigrants who signed up for citizenship ahead of the 2008 presidential election †years ahead, in some cases †who are becoming disillusioned after the federal agency in charge of processing their applications, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was caught unprepared for a surge of applications last summer. The agency is now telling applicants they will likely have to wait 16 months †at least †for their applications to be processed as it struggles to cut through a growing backlog.

The number of applicants jumped by more than 600% last July versus the previous year as immigrants sought to beat a steep application fee hike and to become citizens before the upcoming presidential election.

Some, like David M., a 39-year-old Canadian investment banker, want to vote, but also have pressing family concerns that prompted them to apply. David, who asked that his last name not be used because he feared that speaking out about his situation could hurt his application, first applied for citizenship in the summer of 2006. Nearly two years later, he is newly married and his wife, also an immigrant and an investment banker, is pregnant with their first child.

Her work visa is running out, however. The couple had hoped that David would become a citizen so that he could apply for his wife to stay before the baby is born, but now they are worried his naturalization may not come through in time.

"I'm frustrated at the delay, but I'm more frustrated at the lack of information and the lack of respect. Radio silence and rude response is not acceptable," David said.

Others tell similar stories of long waits and silence from the USCIS when they ask about their applications. Many are filing in federal courts for writ of mandamus, a demand that the government fulfill its legal obligations to process the applications within a reasonable amount of time. Last week, a group of organizations representing Hispanic brought a class action lawsuit against the USCIS demanding that the agency finish any application filed before March 27 by September 22, so that applicants can vote in November.

Despite the growing tide of discontent, the agency's director, Emilio Gonzalez, during a recent trip to Manhattan defended his agency. He promised that the number of applications processed this year would increase by at least 20%, but added: "The key thing to remember about citizenship is that citizenship is a process. It's not getting a burger."

He added: "We're not going to jeopardize security or the process for the sake of productivity."

An immigration lawyer who is a partner in the Wildes and Weinberg law firm, Michael Wildes, who is also the mayor of Englewood, N.J., questions whether the long waits for background checks mean the government is ensuring the country's security. If someone is a security risk, he argues, the government should be able to figure that out quickly rather than letting them live in America for years.

"Either a person is a criminal or a terrorist, or a suspected criminal or terrorist. It's much like pregnancy. It's yes or it's no," he said.

For more than three years, Mohamed Shaaban says he has felt trapped in a gray area as the government decides his case. He moved to New York in 1993 and his uncle, an Egyptian who designs handbags, sponsored his application to become a legal resident. Mr. Shaaban studied design, but later became a limousine driver to support his wife and daughters in Egypt. In December 2004, he applied to be a citizen, aiming to bring his family to New York so he could raise his daughters as Americans.

By September 2005, he had submitted his fingerprints, passed his citizenship test, and whizzed through an interview with a friendly immigration official, who congratulated him on his success and promised a letter would arrive in two weeks with information about a swearing-in ceremony.

The letter never came. Over the next three years, Mr. Shaaban sent letters to USCIS, sent his lawyer to the immigration offices in Long Island, and even sent letters to lawmakers asking for her help. The only response from USCIS has been form letters notifying him that his case is still being processed.

Mr. Shaaban is now concerned that his name, Mohamed, is the reason for the hold-up.

"I love New York. I love the United States, but I don't feel that this is the United States that I used to dream about," he said.

Mr. Shaaban is not the only one who has seen an application delayed as the FBI performs more extensive background checks in an era of increased concern about terrorism.

Paulina Klimenko is a Russian immigrant working as an executive at Yahoo in California's Silicon Valley who has waited for more than two years.

"I add value to the economy, I pay my taxes, I produce children for the society, and my name is not Mohamed. I find the whole thing pretty absurd," Ms. Klimenko, 33, who is pregnant, said.

Kishore Mirchandani, a 63-year-old Indian immigrant who has opened up French bistros and cigar bars in Manhattan in the decade he has lived in the city, has been waiting longer than Mr. Shaaban.

"If I'm undesirable, tell me and let me go back to my country," Mr. Mirchandani said.

A spokesman for the USCIS in the Northeast, Shawn Saucier, said the agency is trying to reduce the security hold-ups at the FBI. He said about $6 million earned from last summer's 69% application fee increase is being pumped into the FBI, and that USCIS staff members have been sent to help the law enforcement agency streamline background checks.

"We don't want these people to wait any longer than they do," Mr. Saucier said. "It's so frustrating."


Reproduced from The New York Sun
Monday, March 10, 2008
by Michael J. Wildes, Mayor, City of Englewood
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