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Minuteman Media: Immigration anger often due to slow paperwork
by BETSY COOPER
It turns out this Congress is interested in immigration after all. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., introduced legislation allowing unused family and worker visas from previous years to be made available for current use, a day after a heated debate over a similar bill in a House Judiciary subcommittee. Menendez’s intentions are laudable, but his tactics may be flawed. Without first fixing the bottleneck that is immigration processing, making more visas available may cause more problems than it solves.
Improving immigration processing is not a sexy topic, nor does it provide many opportunities for partisan gain. But, perhaps more than building walls or conducting midnight raids on suspicious workplaces, reducing processing times would go a long way toward improving our messy immigration system.
There are two core problems. First, there is a limit on the number of annual green cards that allow foreigners to immigrate as legal permanent residents. Nuclear family members of existing legal permanent residents receive low priority under this system, which means that their wives and children must wait years, and sometimes decades, for their numbers to be called. As of 2007, the green card backlog had reached 3.5 to 4 million persons.
However, making more visas available will do little until the second problem – delays in processing applications – is resolved. Citizenship applications doubled to 1.4 million in 2007 as applicants sought to avoid a steep fee increase in July. The government is already struggling to weed its way through these applications; certain offices have a 14 month processing time.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has thankfully promised to temporarily dedicate more human and financial resources to clearing the citizenship queue. But it is worth remembering that the last time a backlog-clearing exercise occurred – a mid-1990s program known as Citizenship USA – green card processing suffered because of the inordinate emphasis placed on speeding through naturalization applications. Based on this precedent, it is safe to assume that USCIS is unprepared to take on more green card applications since it is already struggling to manage citizenship applications.
Making a long-term financial commitment to better immigration processing may seem improbable given today’s political and economic climate. But accepting green card holders and citizenship applications in a timely and sensitive manner is not just a nice thing to do; it is a central component of America’s economic and national security.
Visa backlogs can encourage illegal immigration. The White House reported in 2007 that fifteen percent of those waiting for green cards were already living in the United States, many illegally. By making green cards available, the incentives for illegal immigration will decrease.
Long lag-times also impede America’s foreign policy objectives. Delays hurt our economic well-being, which depends on our openness to ideas and talent from all over the world. They also decrease our ability to use immigration as a foreign-policy bargaining chip; one of the most common demands made by foreign governments is to increase visa access for their citizens.
Finally, the citizenship processing bottleneck hurts the integration of new immigrants. The ACLU recently sued the US on behalf of a decorated Iraqi-American soldier who had waited more than the legal time limit to obtain citizenship. Many similar prospective citizens will be unable to vote in November’s elections. How can pundits complain about the failures of assimilation when the government itself is failing those who actually have followed the rules?
Immigration processing may not sound exciting, but, like border control and interior enforcement, it is a core national security issue. It is time to restore some sense into our immigration system, not only by welcoming long-waiting green card and citizenship applicants, but first making sure our government is ready to process them.
Betsy Cooper is an immigration consultant and fellow of the Truman National Security Project originally from Buffalo, NY.
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