TOPICS > Politics

Politics of Citizenship

March 4, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, did election year politics play a role in the rules of citizenship? Kwame Holman reports.

SPOKESPERSON: Congratulations! You’re a citizen of the United States of America!

KWAME HOLMAN: In 1996, 1.1 million immigrants became citizens of the United States, a 100 percent increase over the year before. In fact, so many became new citizens that the Immigration & Naturalization Service held mass swearing-in ceremonies at big city sites around the country.

DORIS MEISSNER, Immigration and Naturalization Service: You have come from 113 countries around the globe.

KWAME HOLMAN: According to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner it was all part of Citizenship USA, a program designed to speed up the naturalization process to relieve a surge in immigrant applications.

DORIS MEISSNER: These are all people that are eligible to be citizens. They’ve been here at least five years. They immigrated legally. They’re playing by the rules.

SPOKESMAN: Who needs to register to vote?

KWAME HOLMAN: But last year voter registration groups, like this one camped outside a naturalization ceremony at Boston’s Thaneuil Hall, began targeting the new citizens. That prompted some Republicans to claim the Clinton administration’s push to naturalize was, in part, an effort to recruit Democratic voters before the November election.

SPOKESMAN: I’m voting for a Democrat because I’m from the minority.

KWAME HOLMAN: In addition, the Immigration Service recently had to admit its speeded-up system of naturalizing immigrants sometimes resulted in their becoming citizens before the FBI completed required checks of their backgrounds. The Justice Department now puts the number of unscreened new citizens at 180,000.

REP. HAROLD ROGERS, (R) Kentucky: INS granted citizenship this past year to criminals because they decided it was more important to make sure that they were entitled to vote; that if they had a criminal record.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon Republican Harold Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the INS budget, grilled both Commissioner Meissner and Attorney General Janet Reno on a number of immigration issues. He called the incomplete FBI checks of immigrants in the Citizenship USA program the most serious of his concerns.

REP. HAROLD ROGERS: You stopped checking criminal records.

DORIS MEISSNER: We did not stop checking criminal records. It is a requirement that a fingerprint card be submitted for all naturalization applicants. That fingerprint card is checked by the FBI and an answer where there is a criminal record comes to the Immigration Service. Now, there have been some deficiencies in that process.

REP. HAROLD ROGERS: Of the million–

DORIS MEISSNER: Of the 1.1 million cases we–

REP. HAROLD ROGERS: –did you not have a proper criminal records check on?

JANET RENO, Attorney General: Seventy-one thousand rap sheets for the end–have been identified as having FBI records. Thirty-four thousand, seven hundred individuals have been arrested only for administrative violations. Twenty-five thousand, five hundred individuals have been arrested for at least one misdemeanor, but no felonies and ten thousand, eight hundred individuals have been arrested for at least one felony. The presumption was based on the FBI’s processing estimates the presumption was that if there was a record, it would be–it would be identified in 60 days and returned to us. If we did not hear anything, we assumed there was no record. That is the system that we had been operating–

REP. HAROLD ROGERS: Well, your system doesn’t work because today we’ve got at least 10,000 felons on the streets of our country thanks to your incompetence.

DORIS MEISSNER: We agree that that system did not work, and that is why we changed the system; however, there are not 10,000 felons on the streets. There are 10,000 cases that might have disqualifying arrests that we are reviewing. Just because somebody had an arrest does not disqualify them from naturalization.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman Rogers cited a report in today’s “Washington Post” that suggested Vice President Gore’s office had pressured the Immigration Service to increase the number of naturalizations before election day.

REP. HAROLD ROGERS: You waived all normal standard common sense procedures to check these people for criminal records. You waived that in order to get them so they could vote in the election. And I find that reprehensible.

DORIS MEISSNER: Mr. Chairman, I must dispute that assertion. That is not what occurred. We at every step along the way strengthened the procedures where fingerprints were concerned. We were strengthening a system, as I say, that had been functioning since 1982–

REP. HAROLD ROGERS: You naturalized them without even hearing from the FBI.

DORIS MEISSNER: The–the method that we were using at that time we did not realize was a system vulnerability.

KWAME HOLMAN: INS Commissioner Meissner will be back on Capitol Hill tomorrow answering many of the same questions before a special House committee investigating the naturalization issue.