- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

The nation’s backlog of about 3.7 million immigration applications will be eliminated by the end of 2006, a top Bush administration immigration official told lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Calling it a “serious problem,” Eduardo Aguirre Jr., director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said his agency has begun to chip away at the overflow, which reached new heights when stricter guidelines were implemented after the September 11 attacks.

About 6.1 million immigration cases are pending, more than half of which are part of the backlog of cases at least 6 months old.

The plan for erasing the backlog involves streamlining the application process, including giving USCIS adjudicators authority to make an application decision at first review. It also will rely on implementing new technologies and expanding the online application system.

“Ideally, we want 50 percent of applications to come in electronically,” Mr. Aguirre said. He added that USCIS also will use the latest technology to store fingerprints, photographs and signature information of applicants.

Such storage, he said, will “reduce the workload at USCIS facilities tasked with capturing this information” and “eliminate the redundancy of recapturing such information” when new or subsequent applications are filed.

In testimony before the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and claims, Mr. Aguirre also spoke of the establishment of a system to let people check the status of their applications on the Internet.

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat and ranking member of the subcommittee, appeared optimistic about the plans. “We cannot keep families separated for years at a time on account of processing delays,” she said.

Mrs. Jackson-Lee said one of the longest backlogs in the country is in the Houston area, where about 50,000 immigrants are waiting for their applications to be processed.

“For some, the wait has been as long as five years,” she said.

Subcommittee Chairman John Hostettler, Indiana Republican, said, “American companies have also suffered,” because they must wait for USCIS to approve applications submitted on behalf of employees from abroad, some of whom graduated from American universities.

Dan Stein, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said the attempt to ease the backlog in processing applications was “a well-meaning, but ultimately fruitless objective so long as the current failed immigration policy remains in place.”

“Lack of efficiency is only a small part of why the backlog in processing 3.7 million immigration visas exists,” Mr. Stein said. “The problem is the rapid expansion of applications brought on by a policy of chain migration that is overwhelming the system and which must be ended.”

Mr. Stein said the existing policy of extended family chain migration means processing current applicants faster will only encourage more relatives to get in line, leading to even greater backlogs.

While USCIS is processing those applications and checking immigrants’ backgrounds, he said, Congress must freeze new extended-family applications, he said

Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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