- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It’s usually thought of as the kinder, gentler arm of immigration, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services helps nab an average of five criminals a day, including the occasional murder suspect — a point that agency Director Emilio Gonzalez underscores when he discusses the USCIS role in the Homeland Security Department.

A little more than a year ago, Mr. Gonzalez took over the agency in charge of granting citizenship, green cards signifying a legal permanent immigrant and visas for work or study. In that year, he has started a pilot program to test a new naturalized citizenship exam, finished off a backlog of millions of benefit applications and created several offices that would put national security first at the agency.

But those who interact most with USCIS say Mr. Gonzalez’s tenure will succeed or fail on his latest proposal to increase fees an average of more than 60 percent in order to finish the transformation from a much-maligned 20th-century paper-based bureaucracy into 21st-century streamlined, self-sufficient, services-based enterprise.

“All those people that are out there complaining about long waits, dingy buildings, poorly trained personnel, this is an opportunity for us to take those into account and fix it,” Mr. Gonzalez said last week from his office overlooking Massachusetts Avenue and Union Station.

“We have been woefully underfunded, even under the days of [the former Immigration and Naturalization Service] and the Justice Department,” he said in defending the proposed new fees. “There’s absolutely no way I could in good conscience continue to head an agency that’s treading water. We’re coasting. And when you’re coasting, you’re going backwards; nobody ever coasted uphill.”

It’s a touchy issue that goes straight to the heart of legal immigration and who should pick up the tab for applying.

His proposal is already meeting resistance on Capitol Hill, where some Democrats called on him to rethink how the agency does business.

“Many in the immigrant community see the increase for what it is — increasing the cost of the American dream, telling those least fortunate among us they probably need not apply,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

But as a Cuban-born immigrant whose parents brought him to the U.S. as a child, Mr. Gonzalez considers himself an advocate for the immigrant community and says he hopes “to convey that immigration, done properly, works.”

And as a former Army officer, he is fond of saying there is a reason that his agency is part of Homeland Security. He takes pride in the fact that his agency turns over an average of five names a day to law-enforcement agencies — for everything up to and including those being sought on murder charges.

“Those are folks who think they can get away with murder, literally, come in to get a new green card, come in with a wife or girlfriend to help them apply for a benefit. We run a check and find out there’s a warrant on these folks,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

He has created a special unit to handle difficult national-security cases and also created a benefit revocation unit, which is designed to help officials at the local offices go after those whose green card or citizenship should be taken away.

The balance between security and openness doesn’t always strike outsiders as correct, and they let him know it.

“I get hate mail by the hundreds,” he said, adding that it comes from both sides of the debate.

Immigrant advocates say they don’t see much progress from Mr. Gonzalez’s first year.

“I can’t say that he’s really made his mark yet,” said Crystal Williams, deputy director of programs at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Certainly, the fees are his first attempt to make a mark, and it’s not the kind of mark you like to see.”

She said that the “jury is still out” on the citizenship test and that many of the other issues he’s trying to tackle are perennial problems that others have failed to solve.

“I’m not seeing an awful lot new here,” she said. “Admittedly, he’s only the second director of USCIS, but there have been commissioners of INS for many years before him who have tried to address the adjudication side of things before him, and quite honestly, none of them have succeeded.”

She also said she’s noticed a change that actually seems to have begun after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Before that, she said, adjudicators used to look at applications and see whether the preponderance of the evidence favored approval.

“Now many — if not most — of them seem to look at an application and ask themselves, how can I deny this, and if they can’t find a way to deny it, only then approve it,” she said.

Mr. Gonzalez raised some eyebrows in Miami two weeks ago when he compared the immigration debate in Congress over granting citizenship to illegal aliens to the civil rights movement. In the interview last week, he said he wasn’t trying to stir controversy.

“The comparison is not on the substance but on the scope,” he said. “You have legislation that is going to change the lives of millions and millions of people. You have legislation that is going to address individuals that are invisible today yet are standing right in front of us.”

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