Attorney General Janet Reno said Tuesday that the Clinton administration awarded citizenship to at least 168 immigrants last year who had been convicted of felonies that should have disqualified them.
But that number could grow by several hundred or thousands in coming weeks once a Justice Department audit is completed, administration officials said.
The figures Reno gave a House panel Tuesday result from a review of 10,800 people who were arrested for felonies but were granted citizenship anyway between August 1995 and September 1996. Auditors have reviewed 9,500 of the 10,900 cases. While the 168 wrongly naturalized immigrants represent fewer than 2 percent of the felony arrests, they are eight times the number of people whose citizenship is normally revoked in any given year.
Auditors are also reviewing the records of an additional 180,000 immigrants who became citizens before the checks for criminal records were completed.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service said it rejected 18 percent of the more than one million applicants in background checks last year. Those rejected included people with criminal convictions. So in theory, several thousand convicted felons could have been among the 180,000 who were naturalized without proper screening.
In a drive that Republicans say was motivated by election-year politics, 1.3 million legal immigrants applied to become citizens between August 1995 and September 1996.
Republican lawmakers Tuesday accused Reno and Doris M. Meissner, the commissioner of immigration and naturalization, of participating in a voter-drive sham.
“You waived all standards to get them to vote in November!” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky.
But Meissner said that program was developed in 1995 to deal with a surge in applications from 543,000 in fiscal 1994 to over one million in fiscal 1995. “We were responding to consumer demand,” Meissner said.