WASHINGTON — Federal officials vowed Wednesday to plow through thousands of languishing citizenship background checks in time for the upcoming presidential election.
The pledge came as members of Congress blasted Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff for the naturalization delays, which critics charge could prevent tens of thousands of eligible citizens from voting.
An estimated 60,000 citizenship applicants have been waiting more than six months for the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to complete the background checks, and dozens have sued the government — some after waiting years to be cleared.
On Wednesday, the FBI and Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), the agency that grants naturalization, committed to processing by November all background checks of those who've been waiting more than a year. Many times, applicants have fulfilled all other requirements for naturalization except for the so-called "name checks."
Beginning in June 2009, the two agencies plan to process 98 percent of them within 30 days.
The FBI said it could meet the self-imposed deadlines because it plans to hire more than 100 contract workers. DHS has pledged to hire 3,000 workers to reduce backlogs.
Daniel Kowalski, an attorney who tracks developments in immigration law as the editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin, praised the agencies for setting deadlines.
"They definitely could pull it off," he said. "It's always been a matter of simply allocating resources in the right way."
In testimony before a Senate committee on Wednesday, Chertoff said DHS estimates that more than 1 million people will be processed this year in time for the elections.
However, Chertoff acknowledged that a "significant" number of eligible applicants might not become citizens in time to vote in the presidential elections.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that "tens of thousands — maybe even more" people could still be precluded from voting.
"You now preside over citizenship application backlogs that could and should have been anticipated," Leahy told Chertoff.
Leahy pressed for assurances that applicants who applied recently would be processed in time to vote.
"Or is it going to be, as many have suggested, that there's an effort made to make sure they don't vote in the next election?" Leahy asked.
The backlog of background checks for both naturalization and permanent residency swelled in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks after immigration officials asked the FBI to recheck the names of 2.7 million immigrants.
Adding to the backlog was a surge of applications last year prompted partly by the announcement of fee increases.
In a major policy shift in February, DHS announced that it would grant permanent residency to tens of thousands of applicants before the FBI completed its name checks in an effort to reduce the backlog.
Those eligible are immigrants whose fingerprints have cleared the FBI database of criminal convictions and arrests, but whose names haven't yet cleared the FBI's criminal or intelligence files after six months of waiting.
In all, about 150,000 green-card and naturalization applicants have been delayed by the FBI name checks, with 30,000 held up more than three years, according to CIS.