Focus on Issues: in Quest to Become U.S. Citizens, Immigrants Endure Mass of Red Tape

Kalmina Dashevskaya should have become a citizen of the United States well over a year ago.

She waited five years for the right to apply, passed her citizenship test in April of 1997, but has not yet been sworn in because the Immigration and Naturalization Service has failed to complete her requisite criminal background check.

For the 71-year-old Jewish refugee from Ukraine, the bureaucratic process has become exasperating. The INS has taken her fingerprints on five separate occasions and either rejected, lost or failed to process them each time.

“I feel very frustrated, very unhappy,” Dashevskaya, who lives in subsidized housing in Oak Park, Mich., said in a telephone interview last week through an interpreter.

But it’s more than just frustration. It’s a matter of having enough food to eat.

Last year, she lost her access to food stamps as a result of the 1996 welfare reform law, which denied certain benefits to refugees who had been in the country more than five years and were not citizens.

Since then she and her husband, who applied for citizenship at the same time but was sworn in a year and a half ago, have been struggling to subsist on his food stamps alone.

As America celebrates its independence on July 4, Dashevskaya is one of tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants — and one of more than 2 million people total – - caught up in a massive backlog of people waiting to become citizens of the United States. The backlog is the largest since the federal government began keeping records at the turn of the century.

“These are legal immigrants, people who are making positive contributions to our society and who have played by the rules,” said Leonard Glickman, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

“We just think it’s outrageous for someone who has made the kind of personal and profound decision to become a citizen of another country to have that impeded by bureaucratic obstacles,” said Glickman, whose organization has helped process nearly 189,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union between 1989 and 1993.

The normal waiting time — which averaged six months before the backlog increased in 1996 — is now 18 months, and as long as two years in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Miami and Chicago.

The backlog stems from a surge in citizenship applications dating back to 1993. Driven by changes to federal immigration and welfare laws, applications have soared from 342,000 six years ago to a record 1.5 million last year. Close to 2 million more applications are expected this year.

The “stampede,” according to Diana Aviv, director of the Washington office of the Council of Jewish Federations, has been caused by “the sense that immigrants have had that if they’re not citizens they won’t be adequately protected in this society.”

The problem has been exacerbated by reform measures mandated by Congress. The reforms require two INS officials and a supervisor to go over the same citizenship application.

The INS has also been trying to shift from an antiquated, paper-based filing system to computers, computerized fingerprinting machines and other technological innovations.

Jewish refugees caught up in the wait are among the most vulnerable, Jewish organizational officials say, because many are elderly or disabled and in dire need of gaining access to the social service programs that come with citizenship.

Reducing the backlog has become a major focus for Jewish immigrant advocacy groups, led by CJF and HIAS, who are urging Congress to appropriate the more than $100 million the INS estimates it needs to reduce the wait by the end of 1999.

Indeed, most observers believe that the source of many of the immigration service’s problems stem from its dual role as an agency that must both keep illegal immigrants out of the country and help legal immigrants become citizens.

In pressing the issue, advocates find themselves in the middle of a battle raging between Congress and the INS over how best to run the agency.

Some congressional Republicans, citing a report conducted last year by a bipartisan commission that concluded the INS was suffering from “mission overload,” have suggested abolishing the agency and dispersing many of its responsibilities among the State, Justice and Labor departments.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner has defended her agency against congressional threats of a breakup, promising a drastic reorganization.

A spokeswoman for the INS said the immigration service has been working to reduce the backlog by assigning more adjudication officers, authorizing more overtime and speeding up the number of interviews.

“We are committed to doing whatever it takes to fix the naturalization system,” the spokeswoman said. “A customer-friendly, timely and secure naturalization program is the agency’s highest priority.”

A proposal is also pending to raise the fees applicants pay from $95 to $225. The INS believes the extra funds can help chip away at the backlog.

Jewish groups, for their part, have put together their own set of recommendations for a restructuring of the INS, arguing that the overriding change needed is one of attitude.

The groups want to see a more service-oriented system that treats immigrants as customers, not adversaries.

Echoing some of the immigration service’s own proposals, Jewish immigrant advocates say that a wall needs to be built separating service and enforcement personnel and functions.

At the same time, Jewish groups are urging lawmakers not to make matters worse by imposing new changes to the naturalization process.

A key concern is legislation approved by a House panel in June that would mandate more stringent criminal background checks before someone can be approved for citizenship.

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