- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

The outgoing head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says his agency won’t give in to political pressure and cut corners on citizenship applications in order to mint new voters for this year’s elections.

“I can’t allow citizenship to be politicized. It was allowed once before in the ‘90s, and it was a disaster, and I’m not going to allow it again,” Emilio Gonzalez, whose resignation takes effect April 18 after more than two years as director of the agency, told The Washington Times.

Some members of Congress, immigration advocacy groups and editorial pages have accused him of slow-walking hundreds of thousands of citizenship applications filed last year, saying they perceive an effort to keep potential Democrat-leaning new citizens away from the polls.

Mr. Gonzalez calls that charge “nonsense.”

“They’re all looking for the external quick-fixes: why can’t people vote, why is the line so long, why can’t you do this,” he said. “My goal in the time I was here is working on the long-term, hard things to do, knowing full well I will never see the benefits of anything we accomplished.”

His agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is in charge of judging applications for immigration benefits including green cards and citizenship.

In his time as director, Mr. Gonzalez has overseen creating a new citizenship test that he said goes beyond memorization and makes new citizens understand what they are learning; hired thousands of new employees and contractors to speed up service; stepped up a program to get better-trained employees in the field; and a fee increase that he said puts the agency on firm financial ground.

He also shepherded through one backlog reduction, and is in the final stages of working out the kinks of name-checks with the FBI, which he said leads to most of the 500 lawsuits filed against his agency every month from immigrants seeking to speed up their applications.

But critics say his legacy will be last year’s fee increases, and the subsequent rush of applications to avoid the higher fees, which has created a new backlog and could keep some applicants from getting citizenship in time to vote this year.

“The agency faced enormous challenges during his tenure, and he leaves with a naturalization backlog of crisis proportions that must be addressed so that people can be naturalized in time to exercise the most fundamental right of all Americans — the right to vote,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee.

Immigration groups and some editorial pages were more pointed, with the New York Times saying Mr. Gonzalez was “leaving behind a gummed-up bureaucracy and perhaps a million empty promises.” The paper said the glut of applications seems well-positioned to help deny potential Democratic voters from being able to vote.

Mr. Gonzalez — a Cuban-born immigrant himself, who arrived as a refugee in the U.S. as a child — said those accusations “personally offended” him.

“There are no such things as Democrat immigrants and Republican immigrants,” he said.

He said his goal is to avoid a repeat of Citizenship USA, a Clinton administration program designed to naturalize hundreds of thousands of immigrants in time for the 1996 elections. An inspector general’s report found the program led to bad decisions and the wrong people getting benefits.

While immigrant and liberal advocacy groups say his agency is too harsh and slow in responding, Mr. Gonzalez takes fire from the other side as well: Conservative members of Congress have said his agency already moves applications too quickly and is the weak point in the war on terrorism.

At a recent House subcommittee hearing, Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican, criticized Mr. Gonzalez for not talking enough about security and for calling those who are seeking benefits the agency’s “customers.” Mr. Culberson said the real customers are the American people.

But Mr. Gonzalez receives effusive praise from the president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ National USCIS Council.

“Labor unions are not particularly known for giving kudos to our agency heads. This is an extraordinary exception,” said Michael Knowles, who said the director left the agency and its work force in better shape than he found it. “He is an exceptional leader.”

No replacement for Mr. Gonzalez has been named. Mr. Gonzalez has not said what he will do next.

In his office overlooking Union Station, he keeps a giant notepad on an easel in his office marked with the year’s priorities, and for 2007, all but one of the 11 items has a check mark next to it.

The lone exception said “TWP” — the acronym for “temporary worker program,” which is the name President Bush gave to his guest-worker plan to legalize current illegal immigrants and bring in future foreign workers. Mr. Bush’s proposal failed to pass the Senate last year, and Mr. Gonzalez said that’s because the bill tried to do too much.

“I think there were a lot of people there who felt with deep moral convictions you were rewarding someone who committed a crime,” he said, adding that while illegal immigrants have to be addressed, he counts himself among those who think giving them citizenship is wrong.

“It sends the wrong message when you take this number of people and say, OK, you become citizens. It was the wrong message in the ‘80s, it was the wrong message in the ‘90s, and because of that we have what we have now,” he said.

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