Homeland Security Given OK to Use Retirees to Reduce Immigration Backlog

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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has authority to rehire retired workers to reduce a backlog of immigration applications that is preventing thousands of people from becoming U.S. citizens in time to vote in November's elections, a Democratic senator said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., had pressured Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Homeland Security Department, to seek permission to rehire the retirees. The permission was granted Thursday by the Office of Personnel Management.

"This is a welcome breakthrough that has great potential to help sort through the backlog of pending applications," Schumer said Friday in a statement. "Immigrants who play by the rules and get in line deserve a chance at citizenship, not an endless waiting game. Failed planning led to this backlog, but this is a smart step that could help fix the situation."

Schumer pushed for the retiree hiring after The Associated Press reported that a summer spike in immigration applications caused the backlog.

During the 2007 fiscal year, 7.7 million applications for citizenship, legal residency and other immigration benefits were filed. About 2.5 million of those were filed in July and August.

The flood of applications came mostly from people applying to be citizens or legal residents and who wanted to beat drastic increases in filing fees last July. The cost of naturalizing rose from $330 to $595, while applying for legal residency increased from $325 to $905. A required $70 fingerprinting fee for most applications is now $80.

Citizenship and Immigration Services announced during Thanksgiving week that naturalizations of anyone who applied after June 1 would take 15 to 18 months. Without additional hires, many immigrants could not become citizens, giving them the right to vote, until after the Nov. 4 elections.

Citizenship and Immigration Services is deciding how to begin hiring the retirees, spokesman Chris Bentley said. Agency Director Emilio Gonzalez told Schumer last month the agency has identified 704 retirees, 469 of whom are in "adjudication-related positions." Gonzalez also said the agency has a plan for dealing with the application increase to be shared soon.

Linda Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates it needs 2,500 additional employees over the next few months to meet workload demands.

The backlog coincided with efforts by immigration groups and others to help legal U.S. residents naturalize and register to vote in time for November's elections. Some of the groups and those awaiting to be citizens have questioned whether the delays are politically motivated, which the agency denies.

Schumer wrote a law enacted last year that required the State Department to hire retirees in response to an increase in passport requests. A January 2006 law requires Americans returning by air from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda to present a passport.