- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008


The leader of the immigration agency that grants citizenship is stepping down after a tenure in which he drastically increased the cost of becoming an American but failed to reduce the amount of time people must wait.

Emilio Gonzalez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the Associated Press yesterday that he would leave the job April 18. He recommended that Jonathan Scharfen, the agency’s deputy director, replace him. The White House will name his successor, who must get Senate approval.

“I am very proud of the many accomplishments achieved by USCIS over the past two years. Those accomplishments are the result of the tireless energy and dedication of our 17,000 government employees and contractors,” Mr. Gonzalez said in a message to employees announcing his plans.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff praised Mr. Gonzalez, a U.S. citizen originally from Cuba.

“Emilio is an American by choice, and he has brought that unique experience to his leadership of this critical agency, and more importantly to our nation’s unparalleled efforts to welcome immigrants and foster their integration into our society,” Mr. Chertoff said.

President Bush had pledged in his 2000 campaign that immigrants would wait no more than six months to become citizens or to get other immigration benefits such as legal residency.

Mr. Gonzalez took over the agency in January 2006 facing a backlog of applications that had worsened after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when background checks for pending applications were ordered redone.

By 2007, Mr. Gonzalez had reduced the average wait time for citizenship nationally to about seven months, although about 1 million cases were not counted as part of the backlog.

That progress disappeared last year after Mr. Gonzalez approved a drastic increase in immigration fees that he said were needed to keep the agency afloat. Citizenship filing fees rose last summer from $330 to $595, plus an $80 fingerprinting fee, which was $10 more. Other application fees also went up.

The fee increases are “going to be his biggest legacy, but that legacy came hand-in-hand with a resurgence of backlogs and now it’s going to be up to somebody else to resolve the huge backlogs but ‘enjoy’ the additional funding from higher fees,” said Crystal Williams, an associate director at American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Rep. David E. Price, North Carolina Democrat, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Mr. Gonzalez’s budget, was hoping for a quick transition to a new director. “He hopes [Mr. Gonzalez’s] departure doesn’t result in a loss of momentum in processing the massive backlog in citizenship applications,” said Paul Cox, spokesman for Mr. Price.

Mr. Gonzalez said his departure is unrelated to criticism of the fee increase and the delays in processing citizenship applications in an election year.

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