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What's Wrong With the INS


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Ben Joravsky's article on the citizenship test (April 30) misses the point when it comes to capturing what's really wrong with the naturalization process.

More than two million immigrants are currently waiting for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to handle their citizenship applications. This includes 90,000 immigrants in the Chicago area and throughout the state of Illinois. Thousands have been waiting since 1996 or even before. All too often INS will send notice of an interview or a swearing-in ceremony to the wrong address, or so late that the applicant does not receive it until after the date has passed. In too many cases, INS loses documents that the applicant sends in to support her application, or loses the application file altogether.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and other immigrant advocates documented these systemic problems in a report we released in April 1998. Back then, the nationwide backlog was a mere 1.7 million. Despite some improvements, funded largely by a special congressional appropriation, the backlog has actually increased.

The problems with the INS naturalization process only multiply when the applicant gets to her interview. While Joravsky nitpicks about whether France was a U.S. ally during World War II, he utterly misses the bigger picture: INS officers too often are rude, insensitive, and condescending. Officers have been known to reject "Bill Clinton" as the answer to "Who is the president of the United States"; they insist that the applicant answer "William Jefferson Clinton." While testing applicants on whether they can read basic English, interviewers have frequently asked applicants to read and explain the naturalization oath, which is so fraught with Latinisms that educators grade it as college-level English. Should we really expect nonnative English speakers to understand words and phrases such as "abjure," "potentate," and "mental reservation" to qualify for citizenship?

Applicants with disabilities face even more obstacles. INS often fails to provide sign language interpreters for the deaf or hard-of-hearing. Other immigrants who provide medical documentation of disabilities that prevent them from passing the citizenship test find that INS officers second-guess the documents and insist on administering the test anyway. Who gave these officers their medical degrees?

The most galling part of Joravsky's article is his defense of INS "vigilance" in preventing certain types of people from becoming citizens. Not only are Nazis and prostitutes excluded, as Joravsky smarmily notes; so are many immigrants who have minor criminal convictions that would earn native-born citizens a slap on the wrist. A single DUI can be grounds for denying a citizenship application. Indeed, under the immigration laws that Congress enacted in 1996, immigrants with minor convictions can not only lose out on citizenship, but can also land in deportation proceedings. "Vigilance," indeed.

We invite Joravsky to learn more about what's really wrong with the citizenship process and with the immigration laws, if only to prevent him from again being so smug and dismissive to the real concerns of Chicago's immigrants.

Maricela Garcia

Executive Director

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

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