WASHINGTON – President Bush is asking Congress to spend money to help businesses root out illegal workers but he did not request additional funds to help legal immigrants become American citizens more quickly.
In his budget proposal issued this week, Bush asked for $100 million to expand E-Verify, the system employers use to check whether they are hiring documented workers. He didn't ask Congress to allocate money to chip away at millions of citizenship and other immigration applications that flooded the government last summer, before an increase in the agency's filing fees.
Instead, Citizenship and Immigration Services will rely on $468 million in fees to pay for reducing the backlog by 2010. Those funds are a portion of the total fees that came in with the applications this summer.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the summer's fee increases will give the agency the money it needs to get back on track.
"People always argue 'well, you ought to fund this, you ought to fund that.' That's great, but the pie is only as big as it is and no one ever comes up with this slice they want to give back in return for this," Chertoff said.
A total 7.7 million applications for various immigration benefits poured into Citizenship and Immigration Services in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2007. That's 1.4 million more than the previous fiscal year.
"The backlogs are pretty much back where they were when they started and the agency is back to doing what it used to do, which is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Right now they are taking resources from permanent residence to do citizenship," said Crystal Williams, associate director for programs at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The immigration agency increased fees in July largely to raise about $1.5 billion to pay for modernizing computer equipment, hiring and training more workers, improving field offices and other spending.
Becoming a citizen now costs $595, up from $330. The price to get a green card is $1,010, up from $395. Applicants for both pay another $80 each for digital fingerprinting, a $10 increase.
Congress gave the immigration agency $100 million a year over five years through 2006 to reduce the immigration backlogs. Agency Director Emilio Gonzalez announced in September 2006 the backlog had fallen to about 139,0000 cases. About 1 million applications in the backlog that were incomplete, from people still awaiting visas or whose FBI name check was delayed, were not counted.
The administration deserves credit for securing the $500 million from Congress for the backlog, said Doris Meissner, former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner under President Clinton.
"They broke through the idea that this should just be purely financed by the applicant fees themselves," said Meissner, a senior fellow with Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "But it was finite."
Since 1988, the work of Citizenship and Immigration Services and its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has been largely paid for by revenue from application fees. Congress has provided money for specific projects over the years, but generally those have been limited to a few years. Sometimes fee money has been diverted for things like detention centers.
The result has been an agency constantly shifting resources to respond to the latest crisis, critics say.
"Every time the system breaks down, they are incentivizing people to say, 'Screw the system, I'll just overstay my visa.'" said James Jay Carifano, a research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Immigration officials say they will be able to chip away at the backlogs as 1,500 new workers are hired and trained. Things should be back where they were before the application spike by 2010, the agency's spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said.
Williams thinks that's an optimistic prediction. The 7.7 million applications the agency received last year amount to about three years of work, she said.