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Big citizenship delays

Flood of applications swamps federal offices

A recent spike in immigration applications has, in some cases, more than doubled the time it takes for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to provide receipts to applicants, indicating their cases are being processed.

The federal agency reports it is taking up to two months to complete the initial processing of applications submitted to the Nebraska Service Center, which generally processes Utah applications. Other service centers are also reporting delays to the normal, initial processing time of roughly 10 to 14 working days, said agency spokeswoman Maria Elena Garcia-Upson.

The agency received a flood of applications in advance of a July 30 fee hike, along with a brief spike because of a surprise announcement that there were plenty of employer-sponsored green cards available, Garcia-Upson said.

"We did receive a tremendous volume of applications. It's going to take some time before an individual receives a receipt notice or interview," Garcia-Upson said.

The fee increase was meant to decrease processing time for four common application types, including naturalization, by the end of next year. And Garcia-Upson said the short-term delay shouldn't derail the agency's plans to reduce processing times in the long run.

"Part of the fee increase is to add additional personnel and resources," she said. "We don't anticipate (the delay) being out of hand."

Utah applications for naturalization were posted with a seven-month, start-to-finish processing time as of Sept. 15, and Garcia-Upson said that may be subject to change.

Last November, the agency posted that processing time at six months. Barbara Szweda, immigration attorney for Holy Cross Ministries of Utah, said she's seen applications processed in as little as four months. She said her office received floods of applications before application fees went up.

"We were working every night until late, trying to get the work done," Szweda said. "There's a lot of immigrants here who can't afford the fees. They borrowed money from folks just so they could get the lower costs."

The state saw some 3,850 applications for citizenship filed from January to June — nearly double the number of applications filed during the same time last year. In July alone, there were 853 such applications filed, up about 260 percent over July 2006. In August, applications dropped to below the number filed that month last year.

Coupled with that is a wave of applications for employer-sponsored green cards after the July visa bulletin announced there were plenty of such visas available — which turned out to be inaccurate.

Still, the agency reopened the application window. It estimates it received more than 320,000 applications nationwide due to the opening, said agency spokesman Bill Wright, along with some 400,000 applications for related benefits, such as work and travel authorization. That's compared to about 164,000 employer-sponsored green card applications the agency received in the three months before July combined, he said.

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