Letting anyone in:
Background checks on immigrants slip

Several leading Republican politicians, including Presidential nominee Bob Dole and governors Pete Wilson of California and George Bush of Texas, have raised concerns that a Clinton Administration program designed to streamline naturalization procedures may have let some people receive citizenship without criminal background checks.

However, Commissioner Doris Meissner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service insists that a preliminary review has turned up “no evidence that significant numbers” of criminal offenders, if any, were granted citizenship.

In a letter sent to all 50 governors, which was made public Oct. 29, Meissner said the INS would continue its review and revoke the citizenship in any case in which an immigrant’s criminal past had been overlooked. She also branded Republican claims as misleading and reckless.

More than 1 million people will be naturalized this year, more than double the number of immigrants granted citizenship in fiscal year 1995. Last year’s total of 460,000 was the largest number of naturalizations in 51 years.

The swelling of citizenship applications is largely attributed by the INS to a 1986 amnesty that allowed 2.6 million illegal immigrants to legalize their status. Many became eligible only several years later.

Thousands of others were also prompted to obtain citizenship by an INS program to replace the “green card” alien registration document, and by the 1994 passage of California’s Proposition 187, which directly affects immigrants.

With an annual average of 300,000 citizenship applications prior to 1994, the INS has fallen behind in its processing. A program called Citizenship USA, which plowed through the backlog and reduced the waiting time in most cases to about six months, was created in 1995 in response to the problem, said INS officials.

It is that program that is raising fears within the INS and the FBI that hundreds of applicants may be receiving citizenship before the bureau can complete fingerprint checks to verify that an applicant has no criminal background.

In New York, for example, immigration officials found that 30,000 citizenship applications had been processed without criminal background checks because the paperwork was sent to the wrong office. The citizenships of 36 people who were found to have felony records were subsequently revoked.

A box in Arlington, Va., with fingerprints cards for at least 500 immigrants whom the Bureau had identified as having arrest records was not found until many had already been processed for citizenship.

But Louis D. Crocetti, Jr., the INS associate commissioner for examinations, said that while some problems had crept in to the processing program, estimates of  ineligible applicants being granted citizenship were much too high.

Crocetti called “minuscule” the number of cases in which that occurred. And citizenship, he said, could always be revoked later.

Only one person was wrongly granted citizenship, he said, from the misplaced box of fingerprint cards in Arlington.

Nevertheless, the FBI is changing the way it notifies the INS about applicants with criminal backgrounds. At present, the bureau notifies the INS only when a fingerprint check turns up an ineligible applicant.

Under the new method, the agency will be informed of the result of the check regardless of the outcome, said Dennis Kurre, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s criminal justice information services division.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Nov. 30, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.