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Agency could hinder immigration reform

WASHINGTON -- Last June, US immigration officials were presented a plan that supporters said could help slash waiting times for green cards from nearly three years to three months and save 1 million applicants more than a third of the 45 hours they could expect to spend in government lines.

It would also save about $350 million.

The response from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services: No thanks.

Leaders of the agency rejected key changes because ending huge immigration backlogs nationwide would rob it of application and renewal fees that cover 20 percent of its $1.8 billion budget, according to the plan's author, agency ombudsman Prakash Khatri.

Current and former immigration officials dispute that, saying Khatri's plan, based on a successful pilot program in Dallas, would be unmanageable if expanded nationwide.

Still, they acknowledge financial problems and say modernization efforts have been delayed since 1999 by money shortages, inertia, increased security demands after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the disruptive launch of the Homeland Security Department.

As the nation debates whether, and how, to legalize as many as 12 million illegal immigrants, the agency that would spearhead the effort is confronting its reputation as a broken bureaucracy whose inefficiency encourages more illegal immigration and paradoxical disincentives to change.

Under the Senate's proposed immigration legislation, Citizenship and Immigration Services would vet legalization applications and perform security checks for illegal immigrants already living here -- a surge that would be as much as triple the agency's annual caseload of 5 million applications.

Each application could generate fines and fees of $1,000 to $5,000, a windfall of $10 billion to $15 billion over eight years, Homeland Security officials said.

The money would dwarf revenue from a previously announced agency plan to increase fees on immigrant applications by 50 percent as early as next week, to raise $1 billion a year.

Former US officials, watchdog groups, and immigrant advocates warn that Citizenship and Immigration is ill positioned to make the best use of the money. Instead, they say, Congress must change how it funds the 16,000-worker agency and provide tough oversight if the agency is to move past its legacy of shoddy service, years-long delays and susceptibility to fraud. Liberals and conservatives say relying on user fees to upgrade the agency is a recipe for disaster.

"If the USCIS fails once again to meet the challenge, the laws of supply and demand will overtake US immigration laws," driving workers and employers to bypass the law, said James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Given the nation's history of weak enforcement at the border and at companies that hire illegal workers, Citizenship and Immigration's record as gatekeeper for legal immigrants often is overlooked. Each year the agency, once known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, awards 1 million green cards, 700,000 naturalizations, and 1 million temporary work permits.

Delays, however, have plagued its efforts. After peaking at more than 5 million applications in 2003, the agency's backlog stood at 1.1 million last summer after a five-year, $500 million reduction effort. That includes 140,000 cases that are not awaiting action by any other agency.

Citizenship and Immigration's troubles stem from the nation's 1986 amnesty. Acting on the principle that citizenship is a benefit that immigrants, not taxpayers, should pay for, Congress required immigrants to cover the cost of citizenship examinations, then about a tenth of INS's budget.

But what started as a reform became an addiction. Hooked on fees, Congress allowed the growth of a Turkish bazaar of levies, through which immigrants now pay for 90 percent of the agency's budget. They subsidize even non paying applicants such as refugees, asylum seekers, and US military members.

As workloads grew, fees, last revised in 1998, failed to keep up. Without money to invest in technology and management improvements, the agency continued to rely on a paper-based filing system from the pre computer age. That carried $100 million a year in archiving, retrieval, storage and shipping costs, as well as lost paperwork and delays.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted costly new mandates for background checks, security upgrades at more than 100 offices, and subsidies to strapped enforcement operations and the new Homeland Security Department.