WASHINGTON – Martin Izuchukwu Okpareke applied for citizenship in 2004 because he wanted to be able to actively participate in his community and politics. He is still waiting to become a citizen.
The National Immigration Forum released a report Wednesday called “Out of Focus: The Hidden Crisis of the Latest Backlogs in Naturalization Processing.” It looks at the problems that immigrants face when they try to become citizens.
Okpareke,a legal U.S. resident,fled an oppressive military government in Nigeria and lives in Kansas City,Mo. He is a refugee employment and training manager at a Jewish Vocational Service.
“Waiting this long makes me feel like an inferior individual,” Okpareke,41,said on a conference call Wednesday held by the National Immigration Forum. He said some of his clients have become citizens.
Okpareke said he has contacted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to find out why his application is taking so long,and they say it is because of an FBI name check. He has also contacted the FBI but has gotten little response.
The report found that many applicants are being forced to wait months or years before obtaining citizenship. The wait has prevented some immigrants from advancing in their careers,reuniting with their families,traveling and voting.
The backlog began in the summer of 2007,when the government nearly doubled fees for citizenship applications. Many immigrants rushed to file citizenship applications before the fees went up.
Ali Noorani,executive director of the National Immigration Forum,said the government has driven up the demand of people who apply for citizenship but has not increased its capacity to respond.
“This fundamental difference has resulted in thousands upon thousands of immigrants kept from the stream of citizenship,” Noorani said. “It has impacted lives of families across the country.”
One of the main problems that slow the application process is an FBI name check,in which the spelling of a name is compared to other names on many different FBI documents.
Fred Tsao,policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights,said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducts fingerprint and background checks on applicants,and generally the FBI name checks do not find any additional information.
“I think we do have a very strong question as to whether these name checks are necessary,and if they are not necessary,we have to wonder whether we should still have them conducted,” Tsao said.
But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service officials disagree,and say they have done a lot to decrease the backlog.
In less than a year,they have decreased the processing time to 14 months,down from 18 to 24 months,said Chris Rhataigan,spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency has also increased its staff and working hours to improve the process.
She said officials have been working with the FBI to complete the name checks faster.
The agency has been eliminating the backlog,starting with people who have been waiting the longest and hopes to have 98 percent of applications processed by 2009,Rhataigan said.
Rosalind Gold,senior director of policy,research,and advocacy of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund,said that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services needs to improve management to prepare for backlogs,create response units to help applicants who are waiting to be processed and improve funding for their services.
“Newly naturalized citizens help revitalize our system,” Gold said. “We could do a better job of welcoming people to America and welcoming them to our democracy.”
Citizenship applicants who are not the children of U.S. citizens must be at least 18 years old and must have been a legal permanent resident for at least five years. They must go through a criminal background check and show that they can speak,read and write English and pass a test showing they have some understanding of U.S. government and history.