Facing backlog, Feds ease path to green card
Marisa Taylor
McClatchy Newspapers
Feb. 11, 2008 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - In a major policy shift aimed at reducing a ballooning immigration backlog, the Department of Homeland Security is preparing to grant permanent residency to tens of thousands of applicants before the FBI completes a required background check.

Those eligible are immigrants whose fingerprints have cleared the FBI database of criminal convictions and arrests but whose names have not yet cleared the FBI's criminal or intelligence files after six months of waiting.

The immigrants who are granted permanent status, more commonly known as getting their green cards, will be expected eventually to clear the FBI's name check. If they don't, their legal status will be revoked and they'll be deported.

The decision to issue green cards demonstrates how federal agencies are struggling to keep up with surging immigration applications while applying stringent post-Sept. 11 background checks.

About 150,000 green card and naturalization applicants have been delayed by the FBI name check, with 30,000 held up more than three years.

DHS officials are determining exactly how many are affected, but confirmed that tens of thousands of people could be eligible for the expedited procedure. Officials said the policy will be posted this week on the department's Web site.

Attorneys who represent immigrants applauded the new policy and predicted green cards would be issued faster. However, advocates of stricter immigration enforcement accused DHS of creating security loopholes, rather than solving the backlog problem.

DHS officials said the new process does not pose any new security risks because green-card applicants have been allowed to remain in the country while they wait to be screened.

"We will do nothing that cuts corners or compromises national security," said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship will continue to be required to clear the name checks before being naturalized. Officials said the requirements remain in effect for naturalization because U.S. citizenship is more difficult to revoke than a green card.

At the same time, the bureau tightened its background-check requirements. The FBI runs applicants' names against lists of suspects in criminal and intelligence files and looks for names that have surfaced during an investigation.

A surge of applications flooded CIS last year, prompted partly by the announcement of fee increases.

Although the FBI clears about 70 percent of the name checks within 72 hours, the bureau struggles to keep up with more than 74,000 requests per week, roughly half arising from immigration applications.

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