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Ins Goes High-Tech To Cut Immigration Backlog Plan Would Wean Department From Paper Filing System

The immigration service unveiled its latest blueprint Monday for using computers, electronic fingerprint checks and other high-tech tools to eliminate fraud and reduce the backlog of 1.7 million applications in its troubled citizenship program.

The plan, building on the recommendations of a $4 million study by outside consultants, would wean the Immigration and Naturalization Service from its antiquated paper filing system.

The agency has been under fire from Congress for testing fraud and allowing thousands of foreigners to become Americans without full criminal background checks. As the agency struggled to cope with a surge of applications in recent years, the wait to become a citizen swelled from a six-month average to more than two years in some cities.

Until recently, INS didn’t use computers to process applications in half of its offices. It’s now undergoing an overall modernization. As part of that push, newer technologies are being added to the citizenship program: computerization, electronic fingerprint checks, scan bar codes and telephone information lines.

At a news conference Monday, Clinton administration officials said the restructuring is working.

“I am confident that we are moving forward productively,” said Assistant Attorney General Stephen Colgate. “We are addressing the errors of the past and have improved the process significantly.”

The error-riddled Citizenship USA program, launched with fanfare in 1995 to address growing backlogs, has drawn criticism from congressional Republicans who accused the Clinton administration of hijacking it for election-year gain.

Colgate acknowledged the serious flaws but pointed to the improvements put in place since late 1996.

The agency’s past failures, however, were highlighted once again with the release Monday of audits that probed Citizenship USA.

A random sampling of some of the 1,049,867 naturalizations performed over a one-year period ending in September 1996 suggests INS erred in granting citizenship to 38,850 people - 11,550 because they lied about past arrests or had disqualifying convictions. The sampling also showed significant processing errors in 91 percent of the cases.

Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, termed the audit findings “appalling” and promised hearings.

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the INS, said: “I have worked with this agency for nearly 15 years and I’ve seen attempt after attempt to fix things fail.”

The administration is examining whether the citizenship of 6,323 people should be stripped, most for failing to disclose past arrests. To date, citizenship revocation notices have been sent to 1,481 people.