Com­puter glitch blamed for de­lay­ing nat­u­ral­iza­tion

Obama’s DHS let down many hopeful vot­ers

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Le­gal im­mi­grants lined up to ap­ply for U.S. cit­i­zen­ship ahead of last year’s elec­tion, but the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion let them down, as the agency responsible for ap­prov­ing applications botched the process, leav­ing tens of thou­sands of el­i­gi­ble peo­ple stuck in limbo.

The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity blamed the prob­lem on a spike in applications, but the num­bers don’t bear out that ex­pla­na­tion. Applications rose 14 per­cent com­pared with the 2012 elec­tion year, but the back­log surged 64 per­cent.

In­stead, the depart­ment’s watch­dog says the prob­lem can be traced to a trou­bled com­puter sys­tem that U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices de­ployed last year that was sup­posed to help move the agency from a pa­per-based sys­tem into the dig­i­tal age. The roll­out of the sys­tem was so flawed that USCIS was forced to can­cel nat­u­ral­iza­tion in­ter­views and even cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­monies for fear of giv­ing out er­ro­neous ap­provals.

It’s a se­ri­ous bun­gle for the $1 bil­lion com­puter sys­tem, dubbed ELIS in honor of El­lis Is­land, and it’s a ma­jor black eye for an agency that is al­ready fac­ing ques­tions over its pro­cess­ing of refugees and that would be called upon to han­dle any le­gal­iza­tion

pro­gram Congress would ap­prove.

It’s also a strik­ing snafu for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which ad­vo­cates hoped would be pre­pared to help hun­dreds of thou­sands of new cit­i­zens sign up in time to vote last year against Don­ald Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion plans.

“We are very con­cerned,” said Ros­alind Gold, se­nior di­rec­tor of pol­icy at the NALEO Ed­u­ca­tional Fund, who led a push for new sign-ups last year. “It is very crit­i­cal for peo­ple who re­ally want to be­come U.S. cit­i­zens — they’re com­mit­ted to our na­tion, and they want to be­come full Amer­i­cans, and they should ex­pect to get good cus­tomer ser­vice.”

The gov­ern­ment be­gan last year with about 390,000 pend­ing applications, which is about the usual num­ber, and was av­er­ag­ing four months of pro­cess­ing time. It ended the year with more than 635,000 applications in its back­log and was tak­ing far more than four months. In the fi­nal quar­ter of the year, it re­ceived nearly 240,000 applications and pro­cessed just 112,000 — less than half its in­take.

Those on the front lines say they have seen the prob­lems up close.

“In our Chicago of­fice, we are get­ting lots of in­quiries from peo­ple who are wait­ing for their cit­i­zen­ship applications to be pro­cessed, so we sensed there had been a slow­down,” said Dou­glas Rivlin, spokesman for Rep. Luis V. Gu­tier­rez, an Illi­nois Demo­crat who has been a top ad­vo­cate for el­i­gi­ble le­gal im­mi­grants to ap­ply for cit­i­zen­ship.

Mr. Rivlin said the con­gress­man’s of­fice is be­ing “in­un­dated by new cit­i­zen­ship ap­pli­cants.”

“Many are green card hold­ers who want to travel out­side the U.S. and are ner­vous about Pres­i­dent Trump’s visa poli­cies. Many of them are ap­ply­ing for cit­i­zen­ship and de­lay­ing their travel un­til they are sworn in as cit­i­zens, which means the back­log is in­con­ve­nienc­ing a lot of long-term le­gal im­mi­grants in the con­gress­man’s dis­trict,” Mr. Rivlin said.

USCIS, in a state­ment, blamed a larger-thanex­pected work­load.

“Due to the sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the num­ber of applications for nat­u­ral­iza­tion USCIS has re­ceived in the past year, cus­tomers may ex­pe­ri­ence in­creased pro­cess­ing times re­gard­less of the sys­tem be­ing used to process their case,” the agency said in a state­ment to The Washington Times.

But ad­vo­cates had warned the agency that they would try to regis­ter more peo­ple, and the USCIS num­bers be­lie their ex­pla­na­tion. The back­log grew by 64 per­cent last year, while the num­ber of applications was up just 27 per­cent com­pared with 2015. Com­pared with 2012 — and elec­tion year, when ac­tivists tried to regis­ter new cit­i­zens — applications were up only 14 per­cent.

Cit­i­zen­ship was just one of the ar­eas where USCIS fell be­hind last year. It also amassed a huge back­log of peo­ple ap­ply­ing for asy­lum and built up a back­log in applications for Pres­i­dent Obama’s de­por­ta­tion amnesty for young adult il­le­gal im­mi­grant Dream­ers, known as DACA.

USCIS also suf­fered a prob­lem late last year in the em­ployee ver­i­fi­ca­tion form, the I-9, which busi­nesses are re­quired to fill out for ev­ery new hire. The agency re­al­ized that from Nov. 14-17 its com­puter pro­gram was chang­ing ap­pli­cants’ So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers.

Home­land Se­cu­rity In­spec­tor Gen­eral John Roth has been on the case, spot­ting a num­ber of prob­lems and is­su­ing sev­eral high-pri­or­ity alerts. He has re­peat­edly warned the agency about ELIS, cit­ing “alarming se­cu­rity con­cerns.”

The in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice told The Times that the back­ground check and print­ing prob­lems were so bad that the agency was can­cel­ing nat­u­ral­iza­tion in­ter­views and even had to halt some nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­e­monies to avoid giv­ing out po­ten­tially er­ro­neous doc­u­ments.

Faster ap­provals would not have changed the out­come of last year’s elec­tion. Rel­a­tively few im­mi­grants were stuck in the back­log in Penn­syl­va­nia, Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan — the three states that swung the elec­tion to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump topped Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton by more than 27,000 votes in Wis­con­sin. The back­log of nat­u­ral­iza­tion applications from Wis­con­sin as of Dec. 31 was just 3,307, mean­ing that even if all of them had been ap­proved in time and had voted for Mrs. Clin­ton, they still wouldn’t have come close to over­com­ing Mr. Trump’s lead.


Nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­e­monies have been can­celed be­cause of a back­log of applications at U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices.

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