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Published: Monday, 2/18/2008

Immigration inefficiency

IN AN ADMINISTRATION challenged by questions of competency, the performance of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ought to be viewed with concern. It's bad enough that the nation has failed at containing illegal immigration. It's dismaying that it can't handle legal immigration more efficiently.

The agency's director, Emilio Gonzalez, appeared before a panel of the House Judiciary Committee recently to explain what his agency is doing about a large backlog of applications for naturalization and other purposes. His explanation was reassuring only up to a point - the point being that it should not have come to this.

Citizen and Immigration Services is an agency under the Homeland Security Department that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, took over most functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which had been under the Justice Department. In 2007, largely due to a rise in application fees, it found itself swamped.

Some 1.4 million applications for naturalization were received, more than double the previous year.

In June, July, and August, more than 3 million immigration benefit applications and petitions of all types came in, compared with 1.8 million the previous year.

Previous fee increases had caused a jump in applications, but the size of this one was not anticipated.

Yet, as Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) said after presiding over the subcommittee hearing, "This should not have been a surprise. It was totally predictable."

Mr. Gonzalez outlined measures the agency is taking to clear the backlog, including hiring 1,500 new employees, about half of whom will be trained as adjudicators. Agency retirees will also be invited to return to work to help out.

Let's hope that this "surge plan" - as Mr. Gonzalez himself called it - will work in a classic good news-bad news situation.

After all, it's great that legal immigrants want to become Americans. Their dream shouldn't be dashed by bureaucracy.

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