- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

The Homeland Security Department is initiating an “immigrant integration” program as part of its ongoing post-September 11 efforts to streamline and improve some still-active functions of the defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The program, which will involve an expanded step-by-step orientation, aims to deepen immigrants’ understanding of many aspects of U.S. society, from key points in American history to how to vote or participate in a community meeting.

“This effort is historic,” said Aflonso Aguilar, the newly appointed chief of citizenship for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency took over several functions of the INS under the Homeland Security Department created in 2002.

“In the history of the United States, the immigration service has never tried to integrate people,” Mr. Aguilar said in an interview with The Washington Times last week. The program, which is still in its formative stages, will be promoted through public service announcements during the next six months.

Mr. Aguilar said plans are in place to distribute orientation materials nationwide to ethnic- and religious-based community and nonprofit groups, and to develop a system of connecting the new citizens with U.S. natives, or “hosts.”

About 600,000 immigrants became U.S. citizens in 2002. The goal of the integration program is for immigrants to “realize that we’re a great country of cultures and religions and languages” and to enhance their involvement in “civic culture,” Mr. Aguilar said.

The idea of such a program was appealing to Id A. Farah, a native of Somalia who immigrated to the United States during the mid-1970s.

“The more you learn the more you really are at the advantage,” said Mr. Farah, 62. “Even if somebody were to give me that program now, I’d love to take it.”

Mr. Farah drives a taxi in the District and lives in Fairfax County with the youngest of his children.

When granted citizenship in 1984, Mr. Farah said, he was given a test based on a small booklet he was given that contained basic facts such as the number and names of U.S. states.

An extensive integration program, he said, would give immigrants more of a sense of “what’s going on in this country,” information they can pass on to their children.

The program, which Mr. Aguilar said will be modeled after similar ones in Canada and Australia, is perhaps the most realistically attainable of the initiatives set forth by Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services officials since the agency was placed under Homeland Security early this year.

In March, the bureau was tasked with improving the speed and delivery of immigration services while enhancing national security and expanding background checks for citizenship applicants.

One goal is to cut the bureau’s backlog of paperwork and reduce to six months the amount of time it takes to process citizenship applications.

“Obviously, accomplishing our goals is not going to be easy,” Mr. Aguilar said. “Reducing the backlog is not going to be easy, but we are sure that we are going to meet that challenge.”

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