Published: February 17, 2008
Three bits of news from the first two months of 2008 highlight the galling inconsistency and inadequacy of the federal government’s system for turning immigrants into citizens.
The first is that the wait for citizenship and green cards is up — way up. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported in January that the average time to process a citizenship application had risen to 18 months, from seven, and that green cards would now take a year, instead of six months or less.
It was a sorry moment for the agency, which jacked up its fees last year with a promise to use the new money to end vast paperwork backlogs. The opposite happened: the agency is drowning in applications from people who filed before the increase to avoid being gouged.
The second was the news last week that the agency had finally taken a baby step toward clearing its green-card backlogs by easing a rule on background checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The F.B.I. will still do full checks on every applicant, comparing fingerprints against a criminal database and names against lists of criminals and terrorists. It’s just that those who have had to wait more than six months for a green card because of one last, unfinished piece of an application — a “name check” of people who have ever been mentioned in criminal investigations, even peripherally — will get their cards.
The move is sensible, and long overdue. The understaffed agency has faced mounting pressure to act. An increasing number of immigrants, after waiting years for name checks, have sued and won, with federal judges ordering the government to do its job.
The third development is the surge in businesses using E-Verify, the federal system for checking employees’ immigration status. As more states and localities have adopted harsh campaigns to purge undocumented immigrants, E-Verify has taken on a larger role, with 52,000 employers now using it, compared with 14,000 a year ago. President Bush’s new budget includes $100 million to expand E-Verify, which the citizenship agency calls “a cornerstone” of “long-term immigration reform.”
You can tell a country’s priorities from what works and where the money goes. With billions for border and workplace enforcement, the government has been rushing to impose ever more sophisticated and intrusive means to keep immigrants out. Yet it continues to tolerate a creaky, corrosively inept system for welcoming immigrants in — an underperforming bureaucracy that takes their money and makes them wait, with a chronic indolence that is just another form of hostility.