Friday, October 15, 2004

Backlog Blocks Immigrants Hoping to Vote

The New York Times
October 15, 2004

Backlog Blocks Immigrants Hoping to Vote

Nearly half of the 126,000 immigrants in New York State who have applied to become American citizens have lost their chance to vote in the presidential election because of processing backlogs in the federal Department of Homeland Security, according to a new study.

The New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group and advocacy arm for more than 150 community organizations serving newcomers, found that about 60,000 prospective citizens in New York were not naturalized in time for last week's state voter registration deadline. The situation is similar, if not as severe, in other states, including several swing states.

"New York is the worst by far," said Margaret McHugh, director of the coalition. "But the numbers in some battleground states are startling. This has a potential impact on the election."

In Florida, where the margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election was 537 votes, an estimated 25,000 new citizens would be eligible to vote if they had been naturalized within the six months set as a national standard by President Bush, the coalition calculated. Instead, the Miami office of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, now part of the Homeland Security Department - has a 21-month backlog.

In New Jersey, backlogs have shut out about 12,000 immigrants from voting, the analysis found, and in Arizona, where processing now takes 13 months, about 6,500 would-be citizens were unable to vote.

The analysis used government figures for the number of pending cases, along with an average approval rate of 75 percent. It applied the difference between actual processing times and the six-month standard to estimate how many would have become citizens before voter registration deadlines had the standard been met. It concluded that New York had more would-be citizens shut out of the election than any other state.

Even some who finally reached citizenship last week, after long delays, discovered that they were not in time, said Vladimir Epshteyn, president of the Russian-American Voters Educational League. He told how an elderly Brooklyn man rushed to him for help filling out a voter registration card a few days ago. The Brooklyn man and his wife had applied for citizenship at the same time, but for reasons that were never clear, his application was delayed for more than a year and a half after hers was granted, Mr. Epshteyn said.

"I had to tell him it was too late," Mr. Epshteyn said. "He was so disappointed - even, I would say, depressed."

Many factors contribute to delays in naturalization. Among those cited by the coalition is a shortage of staff members to handle multiple security checks required for every applicant. Each applicant must pass through at least three layers of security checks, including an Interagency Border Information System database known as IBIS; an F.B.I. fingerprint check, which is valid for only 15 months; and an F.B.I. name check.

According to the coalition, immigration officials say the F.B.I. takes a long time to respond to name checks. "This is dragging out the processing times for every type of application," the coalition paper said.

Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency was on track to reach the six-month processing goal in a little over two years.

"We certainly acknowledge that there is a backlog right now and it is a backlog that we are determined to eliminate by the end of 2006," he said yesterday. "Our commitment is to getting citizenship and the right to vote to eligible candidates as quickly as possible. We're making steady progress, but we're obviously not there yet."

But the coalition said chronic understaffing makes progress unlikely. "Unless Immigration Services offices receive the staff and funding that they realistically need," the study concluded, "there is little chance that naturalization and other immigration services will improve anytime soon."

Even as the backlog of cases grew, the number of immigrants sworn in as citizens nationwide declined by 19 percent in the 2003 fiscal year, to 463,204, from 573,708 in 2002, according to the latest government figures.

One reason backlogs worsened in 2003, the coalition said, was that agents responsible for handling naturalizations were temporarily reassigned to carry out the Homeland Security Department's so-called "special registration" program, which involved the fingerprinting, photographing and interrogating more than 83,000 immigrants from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries. The program was suspended after it proved all but useless in finding terrorists.

At the Immigration Coalition, Ms. McHugh said the sense of bitterness and disappointment among many citizens-in-waiting was palpable.

"They feel their voices have been silenced and their votes have been robbed, even though it could well determine the outcome of the election," she said. "They all take it seriously that they now live in a democracy. Unfortunately the government has not taken seriously the obligation to include them."