Lincoln immigration office on pace to handle a record 2 million citizenship applications

By Joe Duggan / World-Herald Bureau

LINCOLN — When Armin Terzic reads an immigration application from someone who wants to bring a foreign relative to the United States, he knows there’s more to the story than the words on the page.

Terzic and his family fled war in their native Bosnia during the 1990s and made it to Nebraska by 2000. Now a naturalized U.S. citizen, he has worked for three years reviewing petitions for family reunifications that reach his desk at the immigration office in Lincoln.

“It’s a really feel-good job because you connect people who have been separated,” he said Tuesday during an open house at the Nebraska Service Center run by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Lincoln.

Terzic and the nearly 1,300 other immigration employees in Lincoln can attest that more people are ringing America’s doorbell than ever. Workers at the service center’s three Lincoln offices are on pace to process about 2 million petitions this year, which is nearly double the number handled five years ago.

The Lincoln center, one of five nationally under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, also will collect more than $23 million in fees during the fiscal year ending in September.

Among the 18 different applications processed in Lincoln are student visas, work authorizations, refugee asylum, background checks and military naturalizations. The center also handles applications from Iraqi and Afghani military translators and temporary petitions from those affected by natural disasters abroad, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal.

“Every file is a person,” said Mark Hazuda, director of the Nebraska center.

The center does not handle cases that require face-to-face interviews, nor does it process deportations or law enforcement actions, which fall under the realm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Such matters are handled by the immigration court and the Nebraska field office in Omaha.

The center opened with two dozen employees in 1982. The growth in demand for immigration services prompted the federal government to build office space downtown in 1994 and again 12 years later in northwest Lincoln. Some center employees also work out of the Denney federal building downtown.

About 980 federal employees work in Lincoln along with nearly 300 contract workers. Those numbers have grown by 140 positions collectively over the past 18 months, said Tim Counts, public affairs officer for Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Most of the federal employees work as immigration services officers, a position with a starting annual salary of $48,000.

The spike in demand for services can be tied to the growth in the number of people who obtain legal immigration status, who in turn apply for reunification with their relatives, Hazuda said.

He also cited executive actions, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, as a reason for growth. The Lincoln center processes renewals for DACA, which allows people brought to the country illegally as children to avoid deportation and obtain work permits.

The service center also has a unit that specializes in fraud investigations and security checks.

The projected 2 million applications handled by the center this year would represent a record that probably won’t be surpassed soon, Hazuda said. That’s because the fifth national service center in Virginia is in the process of opening.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587,