Immigration agency gets new chief

A top priority for Emilio Gonzalez will be reducing the backlog of immigration applications.

The Senate has confirmed Emilio Gonzalez to head the Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau.

Gonzalez was confirmed by voice vote Dec. 21 and takes over an agency that has been struggling to eliminate a staggering backlog of applications for immigration benefits. His predecessor, Eduardo Aguirre, left the agency in June to be ambassador to Spain.

The Government Accountability Office recently said CIS has made significant progress in tackling its caseload but does not appear to be on track to process all old applications by the close of fiscal 2006 -- a goal set nearly four years ago.

As of June 2005, the agency estimated it had 1.2 million cases in its backlog, down from a peak of 3.8 million in January 2004. But nearly three-quarters involve applications for naturalization or lawful permanent resident status, which will be the most difficult to close, GAO said.

Gonzalez also faces challenges in the issuance of green cards, or documents that denote lawful permanent U.S. residency. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently ruled that CIS must speed up the time it takes to grant cards. Conservative lawmakers, however, have said the agency is approving applicants before it does sufficient background checks.

The new CIS chief's family immigrated to the United States from Cuba in the 1960s. Gonzalez served in the Army for 26 years and retired as a colonel in 2003. He most recently was a senior managing director of global and government affairs for Tew Cardenas, LLP. Prior to that, he served as director of Western Hemisphere affairs for the National Security Council, where he advised President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He holds a doctorate from the University of Miami.

"Dr. Gonzalez brings a wealth of personal and professional experience to his post, where he will now lead the world's largest immigration service with more than 15,000 federal and contract employees," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement.

"I'm confident Dr. Gonzalez will be a valuable asset and knowledgeable partner, leading USCIS in exciting new programs to improve customer service, enhance national security, and eliminate the immigration caseload backlog," Chertoff added.