Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A few words by Michael Chertoff Part IV


As we take steps to meet the lawful needs of our economy, we are also working to improve existing immigration benefits and services for those seeking to live in, work in, or immigrate to the United States.

As you know, USCIS has faced a challenge keeping pace with unprecedented levels of citizenship applications. During Fiscal Year 2007, USCIS received 1.4 million requests for citizenship, which is nearly double the 730,000 received in Fiscal Year 2006. In June, July, and August 2007 alone, USCIS received more than 3 million immigration benefit applications and petitions of all types, compared to 1.8 million during the same period the previous year. In fact, for the months of June and July 2007, the spike in naturalization applications represents a 360 percent increase compared to the same period in 2006. We anticipate that it may take 13 to 15 months to work through these citizenship cases. The processing time goal is seven months.

Much of this spike in citizenship applications came in anticipation of an increase in application processing fees that USCIS implemented in July 2007 to add needed resources and capacity to its operations. USCIS is a fee-funded agency and draws its operating expenses from the fees it collects from applicants. By raising fees, USCIS has put itself on a path to modernize its aging business practices and meet an ever-expanding set of responsibilities.

Raising fee revenue gave USCIS the ability to begin to substantially expand capacity to process applications. As an agency primarily funded through fees, USCIS could only begin to take on more personnel once the new revenue structure was approved and in place. Nevertheless, USCIS began the planning process for this hiring and had shifted existing resources towards overtime. USCIS will hire 1,500 new employees resulting from the new fee structure, 723 of whom are adjudicators. More than 869 permanent employees (442 adjudicators) have already been hired. USCIS will also hire an additional 1,800 employees as part of its backlog reduction plan and has been approved to rehire experienced retirees on a temporary basis to assist with adjudications.

Moreover, the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) continues to enhance the integrity of the legal immigration system by identifying threats to national security and public safety, detecting and combating benefit fraud, and removing other vulnerabilities. During Fiscal Year 2007, FDNS submitted approximately 8,700 fraud or criminal alien referrals to ICE. While USCIS works through the backlog of cases, it remains committed to ensuring the preservation of high quality standards and anti-fraud counter-measures.

In addition, USCIS has modified its background and security check policies with respect to applications for lawful permanent residence to make them consistent with those of ICE. Under this new guidance, USCIS will continue to require that a definitive FBI fingerprint check and Interagency Border Inspection Services (IBIS) check be obtained and resolved favorably before adjusting the status of an individual to that of a lawful permanent resident. USCIS will also continue to require initiation of the FBI name checks, but it will grant an adjustment of status application if it is otherwise approvable and the FBI name check request has been pending for more than 180 days. At that point, the name check will continue, and if actionable derogatory or adverse information is later received from the FBI, the Department will take appropriate action, which may include rescinding the individual's lawful permanent resident status and/or initiating removal proceedings against that individual. This change to security check policies will help reduce the backlog of adjustment of status applications without compromising our commitment to national security or the integrity of the immigration system.

Beyond the August 2007 initiatives to improve border security and immigration, USCIS also continues to work closely and cooperatively with the State Department to process refugees from foreign countries, including Iraqi nationals. The Department's role in this process is to interview and adjudicate cases, perform certain security checks, and make sure that cases are approved once all the necessary steps have been completed. The U.S. government has put in place the resources necessary to process and admit up to 12,000 Iraqi refugees this fiscal year. This remains an attainable but challenging goal. The results depend on a number of factors and variables outside our control.

While USCIS officers are interviewing Iraqi refugee applicants in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon, limits on our refugee processing capacity in Syria continue to make it difficult for the program to reach its full potential. To further assist this process, we are implementing in-country refugee processing in Iraq for U.S. Embassy staff. This could potentially allow even greater numbers of individuals who have assisted U.S efforts in Iraq to seek resettlement in the U.S.

As of March 19, USCIS had completed interviews of over 7,600 Iraqi refugee applicants this fiscal year, and we expect that the total will exceed 8,000 applicants when the final figures for the second quarter - which just ended on Monday - are tallied. USCIS plans to interview approximately 8,000 more Iraqis during the third quarter. Since the program's inception last spring, a total of 21,847 individuals have been referred for resettlement. Altogether, USCIS has completed interviews of 12,163 individuals. To date, 3,835 Iraqi refugees have been admitted to the United States in Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008.

We remain committed to working with the State Department to process eligible Iraqis as efficiently as possible. However, we will not compromise our nation's security by relaxing our standards or cutting corners...

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