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Boro sees citizenship rush ahead of race for president

The excitement over November's presidential election extends all the way to new Americans, but many immigrants in Queens on the verge of getting their citizenship may be hamstrung by slow processing times.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service was inundated with new citizenship applications in 2007, overtaxing the agency's staff and sending wait times skyrocketing up to as much as a year and a half. The crisis led to the hiring of thousands of new employees and likely the resignation of its director, Emilio Gonzalez.

In Queens, whose population was 48.5 percent foreign-born in a 2006 U.S. Census survey, groups helping immigrants gain their citizenship also reported a spike in interest in their services. Ana Maria Archila, director of immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York and the Woodside-based Latin American Immigration Center, said a combination of the July 2007 increase in processing fees and impending election have caused an application rush.

Carmen Gutierrez, an immigration specialist with the Jackson Heights office of Queens Community House, said the office prepared 120 people to take the citizenship test in 2007. This year she anticipates her office will tutor around 150.

Gutierrez agreed that the delay in processing citizenship applications has grown substantially.

"Before June of last year, it was taking four months for some people, and the maximum time to schedule an appointment was six months," she said. "This year it has taken between 10 months and a year."

During fiscal year 2007, the Immigration Service received 1.4 million requests for citizenship, nearly double the 730,000 received the prior year, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on March 5, eight days before Gonzalez announced his resignation. The Immigration Service is a branch of Homeland Security.

In June 2007 and July 2007, the agency saw a 360 percent increase in naturalization applications from a year earlier. Chertoff said it would take between 16 and 18 months to work through these citizenship cases. The normal processing time is seven months, he said, noting the agency is hiring 1,500 new employees to deal with the increase.

But the personnel boost did not come in time to prevent legal action against the agency. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has filed a suit against Chertoff and Homeland Security, demanding an expedited citizenship process. The suit made headway on April 15 when a Manhattan federal court judge ordered Homeland Security to speed up the process of providing documents crucial to the case.

"Our clients will be irreparably harmed if they cannot vote this fall," said Foster Maer, the Puerto Rican Fund's lead attorney on the case, in a news release. "The opportunity to vote is critical to what being an American citizen is all about."

Another factor driving immigrants to file applications in record numbers is the updating of the citizenship exam.

Gutierrez said Queens Community House is encouraging immigrants to apply before the test gets harder.

"I tell them it is a good time to do it," she said. "Because of the election, maybe they can process faster. Also, about taking the chance on doing the current exam."

The official line on how likely these people are to become citizens in time to help choose the next president remains grim, however: The city Immigration Service office is projecting a 10-month wait for citizenship application approval by September 2008.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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