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Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

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Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA): Thank you. Thank you and welcome.

Three areas I'd like to cover, and appreciate your cooperation letting me try to get through them.

One is an area that the chairman just mentioned about the adjustment on naturalization of individuals who want to become American citizens, the naturalization process. You're familiar with the time line. In January 2007 the fees were increased. Historically, whenever the fees have been increased, the numbers have spiked.

Against this background, we find that not only historically numbers have spiked, but we have a lot of NGOs that were out there trying to make sure that we were going to have increasing naturalization, which did take place. And we had the fierce debate in terms of the immigration bill, which caused a lot of concerns, and we should have anticipated that there was going to be that problem.

At that particular time, it took some -- DHS was acting on applications within seven months. Within seven months. Now you have the announcement of the fees, and that has been extended to 14 to 16 months. The administration had indicated you'd reduce by time by 20 percent. And 20 percent from seven months, but we have seen the increase to 14 to 16 months.

At the present time, according to the figures that have been provided by CIS to the members of this Committee and in our conversations, that you would have been able to make the adjustments of status up to the period of May of this year, May of 2008. And now the backlog is going to go back to July '07. That is what CIS has told us.

That amounts to 580,000. Five hundred and eighty thousand individuals who applied in time, who will not get the right to vote. Five hundred and eighty thousand.

We have offered to provide additional resources. Members of this Committee, additional personnel.

And we are stuck with this reality. What can you tell when the right to vote, most sacred right that we have in our country and our society, individuals that have played by the rules, have done the things that they've had to do and against a background which, as Mr. Mueller and others have pointed out in the review of the naturalization programs, there's about 1 percent of those that are in this naturalization program where you find out that there's going to be problems? When you have this enormous number of individuals who want to be able to be a part of the American dream, who have paid their taxes, have done the various requirements to meet it, and we're going to have that number that are going to be outside of the system. What answer can we possibly tell them for the reasons? And what, if anything, can you do about it?

SEC. CHERTOFF: Let me say, first of all, that it is true that historically there's been an increase in applications in anticipation to a fee increase. However, in 1999 it was about a 30 percent increase. This year, it was over 100 percent increase. So I think the dimensions are unprecedented.

As soon as we got the money -- and of course, we needed the money to hire the adjudicators -- we went out and trained and hired adjudicators, and we are deploying those. We've also worked with the FBI to reduce some of the delays in the background check process. The consequence of this is that we have reduced the lag time that we originally projected, which was 16 to 18 months. We're now projecting 13 to 15 months. And we're now projecting that we will have processed within this fiscal year in time to vote over 1 million people. That is, by comparison, to about three-quarters of a million in 2007 and about 800,000 in 2006.

So we are making more people citizens more rapidly than ever before but, I have say, mindful not to sacrifice the quality assurance. Obviously, we have more money in the system now. The limiting factor is we still need, a, to train people to adjudicate and, b, the FBI has to be able to process the background checks. And that's a limited thing.

SEN. KENNEDY: And I appreciate your response. It's still for people who have played by the rules, tried to get in line.

Two other quick questions because of my time. Today your department will issue two waivers. One that nullifies 26 federal laws, another that nullifies nearly 35 federal laws. These new waivers create sweeping zones of effectively lawlessness along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. The New York Times is reporting that you refused to explain the decision of the House and Energy Commerce Committee. Is it your position that your waiver preempts large, unnamed swaths of state land in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California?

Your new waiver also applies to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law protecting churches from unlawful seizures. Do you intend to construct the wall through church property without consulting religious --

SEC. CHERTOFF: No, this is attributed to the fact that we have laws and creative lawyers that permit people to come up with all kinds of arguments about why you shouldn't be able to build a fence.

SEN. KENNEDY: I happen to be the author of the Religious Restoration Freedom Act.

SEC. CHERTOFF: I don't think it applies really to the border. I don't think it actually prevents us from building a fence. But I'm quite sure that some lawyer would make an argument that it prevents it. We would then be in court for a couple of years fighting about it, and that would delay the process.

The bottom line is we have done an enormous amount of consultation and we will continue to do so with respect to the environmental rules. However, we are currently in a lawless situation at the border, because we have not just human smuggling but drug smuggling and violence occurring there. I got to go visit with the family of a Border Patrol agent who was killed a couple of months ago, because a smuggler ran him over with a Jeep. And that vehicle wouldn't have been there if we had a vehicle barrier in place.

So I feel an urgency to get this tactical infrastructure in. And although we're going to be respectful of the environment, we're going to be expeditious about it.

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, many -- I think all of us understand we need secure borders. The real question always was the fence. You're getting half of all the undocumented that are coming in are coming in by abusing their visa status. And the other side of this is that we're taking and preempting land in these areas. And that has to be, I think, done with great care.

Let me a final point, and my time is running out. These are on the number of Iraqi refugees that we're letting in. We had an agreement with the administration that we're getting up to 12,000 this year. This is outside of the newer program. It's just with regard to the numbers that were agreed to by the administration. As of the present time -- on page 17, your testimony says U.S. government has in place resources up to 12,000 -- it says up to 12,000. What is it? Is it going to 12,000 or some nebulous goals? At the present time, the administration has admitted fewer than 3,000.

Our Refugee Committee has listened to the testimony of the ICRC. There are some of the greatest humanitarian disasters of all time that are taking place with these individuals. We need them to comply to our law, clearly. But out of the humanitarian kind of concern that we have, we had agreed to 12,000. We're at 3,000 at the present time. What can you tell us? Are we going to meet that basic kind of requirement?

SEC. CHERTOFF: I think the answer there is yes, Senator. I think we're at about 3,900 right now. Now, of course, we're only one part of the process. The U.N. has to make the referrals, and the State Department has to do certain things as well. I can assure you that, in terms of our piece of the process, we are quite current with respect to interviews. And we've already done 8,600 interviews and conditionally approved 8,600 total.

Now, there's some other agencies that are part of the process before everything gets finalized. But we are not going to be an obstacle to hitting 12,000. We're on track to do our part to hit the 12,000.

My time is up, Mr. Chairman. Thank you.

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