The federal government is not equipped to process the flood of applications from a proposed immigration legalization bill and the agency that would oversee that program won't be ready for "a few years," the office of the Homeland Security Department's inspector general told Congress on Tuesday.
The warning, from Assistant Inspector General Frank Deffer, could severely complicate President Obama's new push to pass an immigration bill this year.
Mr. Deffer said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, is in the midst of trying to move from being a paper-based system to having electronic records. He warned that adding millions of new applications, as the bill would do, would be a bad idea.
"Adding 12 million more people to the system would be the mother of all backlogs. Clearly to us the systems could not handle it now," Mr. Deffer told the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. "It's going to take a few years, so it's something for Congress to consider that, when they implement this, they don't have a date too soon."
Mr. Obama, in a video message last weekend, told tens of thousands of immigrant rights supporters rallying on the Mall that he wants to try to get a bipartisan immigration bill passed this year that would legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said flatly that his agency will be prepared to handle that task but that he anticipates Congress will give the agency more resources to handle a new program.
"We will be ready for comprehensive immigration reform when it is enacted," he said after the hearing.
He said his confidence stemmed in part from the agency's ability to respond to the earthquake in Haiti, after which officials moved quickly to expedite travel for more than 1,000 Haitian orphans and accept applications for "temporary protected status" from tens of thousands of Haitians, both legal visitors and illegal immigrants, who were in the U.S. at the time of the disaster.
Temporary protected status lets those individuals remain in the U.S. and authorizes them to work while here. Mr. Mayorkas said his agency had received 33,000 applications for protected status from Haitians through the first two months since the Jan. 12 quake, and has handled those requests without hurting the agency's other duties.
The agency's ability to handle an influx of applications is critical, particularly after studies showed the last amnesty, in 1986, gave legal status to hundreds of thousands of criminals and others who should not have been allowed to stay under the conditions of the law.
Fraudulent documents are already a problem for other programs administered by USCIS, such as E-Verify, the voluntary system businesses can use to see if job applicants are authorized to work. A recent study prepared for the agency found that E-Verify was able to weed out only about half of the illegal immigrants who applied for jobs.
When the Senate was considering another immigration legalization bill in 2006, the agency's director, Emilio T. Gonzalez, warned that USCIS would need time to set up a new application process. The agency currently handles about 6 million applications a year.
Mr. Deffer said one of the reasons the inspector general began looking at USCIS' technology five years ago was because of the efforts then to push for a new legalization bill.
He said occasional backlogs of applications are part of a cycle.
USCIS has been trying to upgrade its immigration benefits process for years, and Mr. Mayorkas acknowledged there have been few visible results. But he said the effort is moving, and officials are being careful because of many potential pitfalls.
He promised to provide Congress with benchmarks so lawmakers can evaluate the agency's progress on that transformation.
USCIS is primarily funded by the fees it charges applicants for immigration benefits, which means those fees have to cover most of the agency's nearly $3 billion budget.
Under Mr. Obama, the agency has asked for taxpayer money to cover the costs of applicants seeking asylum or refugee status, arguing that those people are less able to pay.
In 2007, across-the-board fee increases angered many Democrats in Congress, and USCIS is in the middle of another fee review that could lead to new cost hikes, unless Congress changes policy and approves more taxpayer money for the agency.
Some Democrats said that's what they'd prefer. Rep. Judy Chu, California Democrat, compared fee increases charged to those applying for citizenship to a poll tax, saying it was "even more of an impediment for them to become citizens."
The chairman of the full House Judiciary Committee made clear that he won't back fee increases.
"I'm for putting these fees into the appropriations process. But I don't want a fee increase," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat. "The increases have been astronomical already, so we don't need that."
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