is backlogged

Some say delays are because
of 9/11, while others blame
arrogant bureaucracy

Post-9/11 security checks have added months and years to the wait for immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship or residency, as immigration offices in Honolulu and throughout the country cope with more duties and fewer workers.

"The delay is now major and affects life decisions," said James Stanton, who practices immigration law in Honolulu.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it took six to nine months to get a green card in Hawaii or to become a citizen. Now, someone applying in Honolulu to be a permanent resident must wait at least 18 months, said Stanton and other local lawyers familiar with the process. It takes at least two years to complete the paperwork and security checks to become a citizen, they said.

And the backlog of cases is growing daily.

Last week at the newly renamed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in Honolulu (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service), the staff was processing applicants who filed for green cards in December 2002 and for naturalization as of September 2002, according to the service's Web site. Orphans with immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens have been waiting since January.

According to a recent congressional report, the number of pending immigration petitions has swelled nationally to 6.2 million, a 60 percent increase in the past three years. The Bush administration has earmarked $160 million to hire staff and cut the backlog, but many say the backlog is just growing.

In part the delay is caused by increased security checks mandated by Congress, officials say.

At the same time the immigration agency staff has been asked to do more investigation, it has lost staff. More than 1,000 agents nationally who used to conduct security checks and process paperwork have been reassigned to other work.

"Everybody and every case gets more scrutiny," said Stanton.

He added that the immigration agency "needs more funds from Congress to hire more staff to do the work. It's easy to criticize the agencies because of the backlogs, but I don't think it's their fault."

In Hawaii the staff is down four positions, to 25, and processing is taking longer, said David Gulick, the district director of Citizenship and Immigration.

Gulick said the Honolulu office processes about 300,000 to 450,000 immigration applications a month. He said the office works on about 150 to 170 green cards a month.

"It never used to take us longer than nine months to process a routine application," said Gulick. "And now, even Los Angeles processes some (kinds of) applications faster than we do."

David McCauley, another Honolulu immigration attorney, said, "Congress and Homeland Security wanted all this additional security work done but didn't provide additional money to hire additional people."

The delays have caused hardships for many, immigration lawyers say.

Mike Renaldi, a U.S. citizen and an Aloha Airlines pilot who was reading a fat novel as he stood in the immigration office line last week, was not happy about the lengthy process to get his Thai wife a green card.

"Before this (office visit), I waited four hours in line to talk to someone to give me her green card application," said Renaldi.

His wife, Prapasi, 40, is a supervisor in a Honolulu embroidery store.

"I've sat through this crap three times, and the people are rude."

Renaldi said they applied for the green card in July but took a trip in January to his wife's homeland of Thailand. The trip necessitated applying for a travel visa because her green card application was pending.

"Most of the people in line here don't want to cause trouble, because they think it will hold up or derail their applications," said Renaldi, "but I won't put up with this crap. I'm an American citizen, and I pay taxes that pay their salaries. Of course, that probably hasn't helped my wife's application."

Renaldi waved a piece of paper that notified them they would hear from Citizenship and Immigration in 60 days and not to contact them prior to that.

"The veiled threat here is that if you bug us before the 60 days, we'll put your application on the bottom of the pile."

Those with nonroutine applications have it harder.

One 25-year-old woman who was five months pregnant waited for her turn with the clerks behind the glass doors last week. She declined to give her name because she and her mother were concerned it would adversely affect her Tahitian-born husband's application for permanent residence.

A U.S. citizen, she flies back and forth to Tahiti, when she can afford it, to see her husband, who is an electrician. The two married in April 2001 and applied for his residency in October 2001, more than 30 months ago and less than one month after 9/11.

Last Tuesday, she was filing an affidavit of support, a filing done early in the paperwork process. An interview is far from being scheduled, she said.

The big sticking point is that her husband was deported about eight years ago for overstaying his visa by three days. She said this has resulted in more steps in the green card process. Her family, which is jointly sponsoring her husband, has not been able to afford an attorney to help.

"Each step just seems to take so long and cost so much," she said.

While the change in Hawaii processings is dramatic, the waiting is not as bad as other cities. In New York, for example, people can wait 10 hours in line to renew a green card, and some employers hire people to stand in line for valued employees with forms to renew.

Gulick said that in Hawaii that same person would wait two or three hours.

"I just tell clients it's going to take longer than it used to," said McCauley.

Yau Ching, 38, who is from Hong Kong but teaches women's studies at the University of Hawaii, waited about two hours to replace her green card last week. She stood in one line for more than an hour just to get the No. 40 ticket that put her in line to wait to see a clerk.

"It was about two hours, which is not as bad as I had expected," said Ching, smiling as she left the office. "I originally got my green card in New York (11 years ago). I did it through a lawyer but still had a lot of steps to go through that took hours in line."

Unlike immigrants with a language barrier, Ching had already downloaded all of the necessary forms and filled them out before arriving at Citizenship and Immigration.

Ching expressed concern for immigrants who have trouble with the language and the labyrinth of paperwork.

She concluded: "I don't think this is all 9/11. I think it's the system that's been in place for 150 years."


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