Immigration authorities are swamped in new bureaucratic backlogs resulting from an unanticipated flood this summer of applications for citizenship and for residence visas, officials said.
In July and August alone, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency received 2.5 million applications, including petitions for naturalization as well as for the entire range of immigrant visas. That was more than double the total applications the agency received in the same two months last year, said a spokesman, Bill Wright.
In the 2007 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, the agency received 1.4 million petitions from legal immigrants to become US citizens, about double the number in the previous year, Wright said.
The surge began after Jan. 31 when the immigration agency announced fee increases averaging 66 percent for most applications, official figures show. The increases went into effect on July 30. The contentious tenor of the immigration debate also prompted legal immigrants to apply for citizenship.
"We did our absolute best to foresee the surge we would have," Wright said. "We certainly were surprised by such an immediate increase with such a volume."
The deluge has been so great that the agency is struggling to send out notices acknowledging it has received the applications. According to a Web page the agency set up for applicants, as of Friday last week the agency's processing center in Texas is sending out receipts for petitions that arrived by July 26.
Also contributing to the surge are about 300,000 applications in July and August for legal permanent resident visas, commonly known as green cards, from highly skilled immigrants. The jump in applications for the employment-based green cards resulted from the resolution of a mix-up in June between Immigration and Citizenship Services and the State Department. The agencies first invited the applications, then said they would not be accepted and then reversed course, agreeing to accept them.
The processing backlogs are different from the visa backlogs that have burdened the system for years. Because of annual limits on green cards, immigrants from countries like Mexico and the Philippines often have to wait decades for visas.
In addition to the fee increase, the rush of naturalization requests was also prompted by anti-immigrant language in the debate over immigration policy this year. Also, the immigration authorities had announced they were preparing a new, more difficult test for aspiring citizens, which they unveiled in September.
"People are scared," said Ignacio Donoso, an immigration lawyer at the Monty Partners firm in Houston. "And they want to avoid the fees, and they do not want to face a more demanding test. So you are going to have people running like mad to apply, yet the government doesn't hire any more staff to handle it."