The Bush administration said Thursday it had reduced the backlog of immigrants (search) waiting for citizenship, permanent residency and other benefits to 1.5 million. But a big chunk of the decline can be attributed to changes in what is counted in the backlog.

The administration first cut the backlog from about 6 million to less than 4 million by only counting cases that take longer to complete than the six-month standard set by President Bush (search).

Then in July, the administration stopped counting applications for permanent residency for children and siblings of U.S. citizens and for spouses and children of legal residents. That eliminated about 1.1 million applications from the count.

When all cases are counted, the number of applications pending was 4.8 million at the end of last month, down from a high of 6.2 million at the end of September 2003.

Eduardo Aguirre, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services (search), said redefining of the backlog is not trickery, but an effort to get benefits first to people eligible for them the soonest.

Citizens and legal residents must wait anywhere from 2 to 22 years to bring certain family members to the country depending on the relationship of the family member and the country of origin of the person trying bring the family member to the United States.

Aguirre said it doesn't make sense to process those applications until the agency is closer to granting the family members their request.

"What we're redefining is prioritizing our work," he said. "The redefinition of backlog is important. Otherwise you could have an application that has 17 years to go for benefit and it would be counted as backlogged for 17 years, when that's irrational."

On average nationally, applications are taking about 11 months to be processed, compared to more than a year last fiscal year.

The changes have left some immigration advocates skeptical.

Immigration advocate Judy Golub said changing what the agency counts in its backlog underscores the need for Congress to give the agency more money to process applications.

Citizenship and Immigration Services increased application fees in April. The application work is being done "on the backs of immigrants," said Larry Gonzalez, Washington director for National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Gonzalez's group works to improve the naturalization process.

But Aguirre said that "more money is not the answer."