February 11, 2008

Immigrants To Get Green Cards Before FBI Name Check Clearance

In a major policy shift aimed at reducing a ballooning immigration backlog, the Department of Homeland Security is preparing to grant permanent residency to tens of thousands of applicants before the FBI completes a required background check.

Those eligible are immigrants whose fingerprints have cleared the FBI database of criminal convictions and arrests, but whose names have not yet cleared the FBI's criminal or intelligence files after six months of waiting.

The immigrants who are granted permanent status, more commonly known as getting their green cards, will be expected eventually to clear the FBI's name check. If they don't, their legal status will be revoked and they'll be deported.

About 150,000 green card and naturalization applicants have been delayed by the name check, with 30,000 waiting more than three years.

DHS officials are determining exactly how many are affected, but confirmed that tens of thousands of people could be eligible for the expedited procedure. The new policy was outlined in an internal memo obtained by McClatchy Newspapers. Officials said the policy will be posted this week on the department's Web site.

Lawyers who represent immigrants applauded the change and predicted green cards would be issued faster.

However, advocates of stricter immigration enforcement accused DHS of creating security loopholes and not solving the problem.

DHS officials said the new process does not pose new security risks because green card applicants have been allowed to remain in the country while they wait to be screened.

"This is something that we're doing to get benefits to people who deserve them as quickly as possible," said Chris Bentley of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the DHS agency that processes green cards and citizenship.

Immigrants seeking citizenship will continue to be required to clear name checks before being naturalized. Officials said the requirements remain in effect for naturalization because U.S. citizenship is more difficult to revoke than a green card.

At the same time, the bureau tightened its background check requirements. The FBI not only runs applicants' names against lists of suspects in criminal and intelligence files but also looks for names of applicants that have surfaced during the course of an investigation or any associates of suspects.

"It's a very complicated process," said Bill Carter, a FBI spokesman. "It involves dozens of agencies and databases and often foreign governments."

Adding to the backlog, a surge of applications flooded Citizenship and Immigration Services last year, prompted partly by fee increases.

Although the FBI clears about 70 percent of the name checks within 72 hours, the bureau struggles to keep up with more than 74,000 requests per week, roughly half arising from immigration applications.

Slowing the process even more, many applicants who don't immediately clear are flagged for extra scrutiny because their names are similar to those of suspects.

Hundreds of people caught up in the backlog have sued the government to force the agencies to initiate background checks. Some of the plaintiffs have found the FBI inexplicitly clears them soon after a lawsuit is filed.

Michael Baylson, a judge in Philadelphia overseeing six of the lawsuits, recently expressed frustration with the government for what he described as "a strategy of favoring delay by litigation, instead of developing an orderly and transparent administrative resolution."

"Congress certainly did not intend for the process to become tortuous, expensive, mystifying and delayed, but it has," the Bush appointee wrote in January when ordering the government to explain the delays.

Critics have charged the naturalization delays could unfairly shut potential voters out of the upcoming presidential election. Last month, Emilio Gonzalez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, vowed to hire 3,000 new and retired employees to cut the backlog.

For the full story see: "More immigrants to get green cards before full review" by Marisa Taylor, McClatchy Newspapers, 02/11/2008

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