Caught in the Citizenship Backlog: Uncertainty Over A Crucial Swing Vote.

As Feet in 2 Worlds has reported recently, the candidates haven’t been talking much about immigration policy. But according to a couple of new reports released this week in honor of National Citizenship Day (September 17), immigration and naturalization are very much on the minds of the nation’s newcomers – whether they can vote or not.

According to a new fact sheet [here’s the pdf file] issued this week by the Immigration Policy Center, nearly 1.4 million naturalization applications were filed in fiscal year 2007 – almost double the number filed in 2006.

What’s more, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, the processing arm of the Department of Homeland Security), the number of people caught in the immigration processing backlog at the end of 2007 soared to 1.1 million people – a nearly 250% increase from the previous year. Though USCIS promises to process naturalization applications within 10 to 12 months of their filing, according to a recent report [pdf here] from the Office of Immigration Statistics, it’s doubtful all the immigrants waiting to become citizens will actually achieve citizenship in time to vote in this year’s election.

Processing times vary in different regions: the longest wait, USCIS says, is in Charlotte, NC, where by the end of this month it will take 14.9 months to process citizenship applications. Processing in Los Angeles and Miami is expected to take roughly one year; these two cities together accounted for nearly 20 per cent of new naturalized U.S. citizens last year.

The shortest processing time is five months, projected in 17 regions nationwide.

This means that someone in Charlotte who applied to become a U.S. citizen in July 2007 would probably not be able to do so by the end of this month, meaning they would not have been able to vote in the local primary elections last week. It’s also unlikely they would become a citizen in time to vote in the general election, as voter registration deadlines in some states are at least one month before the actual election. (Locally, a New York Immigration Coalition report says that nearly 60,000 immigrants in New York’s immigration backlog will be able to vote in November if USCIS keeps to its initial promise of a six-month processing time. The report goes on to say that New York has 126,000 cases mired in the immigration backlog.)

In a close election –the most recent New York Times poll puts McCain and Obama in a statistical dead heat – a few thousand voters can make or break a candidate’s chances – particularly in battleground states in the Southwest and South such as Nevada, Colorado or Virginia, which have seen record numbers of new voters signing up in this election.

The McCain campaign clearly feels those new citizens -specifically, Latinos- and their families are crucial swing voters and is going after them big-time. One of its latest attack ads in Spanish, released at the end of last week in Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico, questions whether Obama is “on our side” and accuses him of opposing comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.

McCain’s arguments are all the more pointed given news from the latest National Latino Survey [pdf here] released yesterday by the Pew Hispanic Center. The survey found half of all Latinos and 63% of Latino immigrants feel the, “situation of Latinos in this country is worse now than it was a year ago.” One in ten of those surveyed, regardless of where they were born, reported being stopped by police or local authorities with questions about their immigration status.

MCain’s accusations stem from Obama’s vote to support an amendment proposed by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) to end the so-called guest worker program after five years. The bill was ultimately supported by Democrats and rejected by Senate Republicans -including McCain-, only 12 of whom voted for it.

Both The New York Times editorial page and immigrant rights advocate Frank Sharry decry the ad as “fraudulent”, according to the Times. Sharry is now the executive director of America’s Voice, but back then he was the head of the National Immigration Forum, one of the key immigrant rights groups supporting the federal bill, which had an enormous number of amendments.

Here’s Sharry’s take on the union-backed Dorgan amendment, which narrowly passed, 49 to 48 — though the whole immigration reform bill ultimately failed in Congress:

“Not one member of Congress stood up and said, ‘I’m voting against the bill because of that Dorgan amendment,’” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an organization supporting comprehensive immigration reform. “It’s preposterous. Not even close.”

Earlier this year in a campaign debate, McCain said that if the same bill came up again this year, he would not support it:

We know what the situation is today — people want the borders secured first.

Not to be outdone, the Obama campaign recently launched a new, and controversial, Spanish-language ad that accuses McCain of having ‘dos caras’, or two faces. The ad accuses McCain of pandering to the anti-immigrant right, including such figures as Rush Limbaugh.

Despite the campaigns’ intense focus on Latino voters, it’s still not certain how many immigrants will make their way through the naturalization backlog in time to vote.

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