The Politics of Citizenship
The saga of the Clinton Administration's effort to naturalize 1 million new American citizens in time for last fall's elections adds a new twist to the reinventing government story.
ess than two months before Election Day, immigration authorities booked a major football stadium for a mass ceremony-the largest that ever had been held-to swear in newly naturalized citizens. After a federal magistrate administered the oath, the Vice President of the United States, traveling at the expense of his ticket's reelection campaign, stepped to the microphone and urged the cheering crowd of more than 9,700 newly enfranchised Americans to recognize "how important the vote is."
As the throng dispersed, many queued up immediately at voter registration tables staffed by county workers outside the stadium. Federal immigration officials say the unprecedented number of participants in the event was the result of a concerted campaign by local community organizations to get longtime residents naturalized.
That was 12 years ago at Miami's Orange Bowl. The Vice President was George Bush and most of the immigrants naturalized that day came from South Florida's Republican-leaning Cuban-American population. A Bush campaign spokesman declared at the time that the naturalization ceremony was a "good event for us. . . . You know when they register they're going to be voting for Reagan-Bush."
In 1996, sports arenas, including Texas Stadium near Dallas and Chicago's Soldier Field, were once again sites for large-scale citizenship ceremonies. And as before, the Vice President, this time Democrat Al Gore, was conspicuously involved in election-year activities that bestowed voting rights upon record numbers of new Americans.
Although Gore did not take part in the ceremonies, he and his staff played a hands-on role in expediting the naturalization process. In the acrimonious closing days of the election, in fact, angry Republicans charged that an Immigration and Naturalization Service initiative to speed naturalizations called Citizenship USA had "literally been hijacked by the Office of the Vice President for the sake of political gain." GOP critics in Congress asked that an independent counsel look into the matter.
Adding large blocs of immigrants to the voter rolls before elections is a time-honored ritual of America's pluralistic political scene. But even allowing for the partisan hyperbole of GOP complaints, the technocratic Gore appears to have advanced the art to a new level by applying the expertise of his much ballyhooed staff of government reinventors, the National Performance Review.
GOP critics contend that the Administration, in its haste to mint more than a million new voters, overlooked cheating on citizenship tests and failed to wait for criminal background checks. White House officials insist that they simply responded to increasing demands from legitimate applicants and that standards were not lowered. But the story of how NPR's specialists in the arcana of government management were called in to help quell a political blaze adds an interesting chapter to the saga of government reinvention.
Birth of a Reinvention Lab
When Doris M. Meissner took office as INS Commissioner in October 1993, the agency's citizenship caseload was less than a third of today's level. Applications were on the rise, however, and Meissner-whose immigration expertise was honed during a five-year stint as a top INS official during the Reagan Administration-knew that things were about to change in a big way.
But she didn't know how big. Legislation passed with Reagan's approval in 1986 had resulted in the legalization of 2.6 million immigrants who would become eligible for citizenship starting in about 1995. The agency was braced to see naturalization applications double to about 700,000 a year, says David Rosenberg, the project director of Citizenship USA. "They weren't expecting it to go over a million." But that's exactly what happened in 1995 and 1996.
INS officials believe the numbers have gone up in response to a recent rise in anti-immigrant political rhetoric and initiatives such as California's Proposition 187, a ballot initiative approved in 1994 to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants. Many immigrants, says Rosenberg, a former top official in Massachusetts' Office for Refugees and Immigrants, began to decide that "citizenship was the best way to protect themselves and their families for the future." A new INS "green card replacement" program entailing a fee just $25 less than the $95 required to for file for citizenship was an added inducement to naturalize.
Meissner began early to prepare the INS, long known for its law enforcement mentality, for an expanded immigrant-service effort. She made it known at her confirmation hearing that she intended to put the 'N' and the 'S' back in INS and to work with community organizations.
But naturalization was hardly the only item on Meissner's plate. Beefed up border enforcement was the top priority in Congress and at the White House and INS funding for that function increased at rate that was difficult to absorb. As an agency in the throes of change, the INS bought heavily into the government reinvention program, capturing a dozen of Gore's Hammer Awards in the process.
During 1994, INS' Office of Policy and Planning explored ways to streamline the citizenship process and sought comments on proposals, such as waiving naturalization interviews for selected groups of applicants, suggested by an internal working group on naturalization.
The big push to find ways to deal with the mounting caseload came in the spring of 1995. An outside management consulting firm, PRC Inc., of McLean, Va., was brought in for six weeks of brainstorming sessions with a cadre of 20 INS managers from Washington headquarters and key field sites. The result was a May 1995 report entitled "Reengineering the Naturalization Process."
The report, laced with terms such as "radical redesign" and "fundamental rethinking," concluded that "a value system based on customer satisfaction is not presently built into naturalization work practices." It sharply criticized the agency's outdated and paper-intensive procedures and its reliance on aging technology.
The following August, the Citizenship USA project was formally unveiled. It targeted five INS districts-Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and San Francisco-that collectively accounted for 75 percent of the pending naturalization caseload. The project's goal was to eliminate backlogged cases-those pending for six months or longer-by the end of fiscal 1996.
Within a week, the Citizenship USA initiative was formally named a "laboratory of reinvention" by the Justice Department's NPR entity, a designation that Meissner had requested in late June.
Out of Obscurity
As one of nearly 200 "reinvention labs" scattered about the government, Citizenship USA operated in relative obscurity for the first five months of its existence.
Then, in late January of last year, Father Miguel Vega, a Los Angeles-based leader of the Active Citizenship Campaign, a national coalition of grass-roots ethnic groups, publicly complained that "INS incompetence will stop 300,000 California new citizens from voting in the 1996 presidential election."
Alarm bells went off in the White House. On Jan. 30, Meissner met with coalition representatives from the five Citizenship USA target cities, along with Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., but failed to allay their concerns.
A Feb. 14 memo to Clinton and Gore from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros called their attention to the continuing complaints of the grassroots activists as well as to the "sense of urgency" attached to the issue by the Roman Catholic cardinal of Los Angeles, Roger M. Mahony.
Within days, Citizenship USA project director Rosenberg received an offer of help from Gore's office. The Vice President, as it happened, was already scheduled to visit California for a March 9 appearance with Clinton. The Gore itinerary was quickly expanded to include a day in Los Angeles.
Elaine Kamarck, Gore's senior policy adviser, and NPR troubleshooter Doug Farbrother flew out a day in advance of the Vice President to talk to employees at the INS Los Angeles district headquarters and its Laguna Nigel service center. The idea was to observe the entire naturalization process from the viewpoint of the applicants, Kamarck explained. The two even sat in on an interview-the critical meeting at which an INS adjudicator determines whether a candidate is qualified for citizenship.
On March 8, Gore arrived to meet with community activists, including Vega. But first, he met with a small group of INS officials, including Rosenberg, executive associate commissioner for programs T. Alexander Aleinikoff, and three key career officers from the Los Angeles District.
"He asked very tough questions," Rosenberg says. "He wanted to know how we were going to correct various problems and get needed staff on board."
The Vice President then met for close to two hours with leaders from a broad array of community groups. A memorandum of "talking points" prepared for Gore's use stressed the Administration's interest in applying reinvention techniques to the problem of clearing up naturalization backlogs.
Gore promised to cut red tape in Washington to speed up the hiring of temporary officers and clerks and to put the arm on the General Services Administration to get additional office space and permit extended working hours. The Interior Department, he added, was being asked to help out with "large spaces for ceremonies." He said he hoped that a separate NPR project would expedite FBI fingerprint checks of naturalization candidates.
Rosenberg says he was delighted by Gore's performance. "He defended us and essentially endorsed the effort we were already making and did not take on any new commitments."
Farbrother and Rosenberg immediately took off on a whirlwind inspection tour of the remaining four Citizenship USA field sites. Such visits are standard "when we need to find out what's really going on," says NPR project director Bob Stone, who reports to Kamarck.
For the staff of a reinvention lab, Farbrother argues, the folks at Citizenship USA "weren't running very fast." While it's true that NPR staff generally tries to pay attention to the progress of the labs, he says, "This was a special case. They were really not getting anywhere."
Kamarck says the situation was "a classic" case for NPR intervention. She noted that Citizenship USA had the green light from Congress and had the capacity to pay its own way through the fees it collects. "The money was there, the problem was there, but the bureaucracy wasn't dealing with the problem," she says. "Any problem like that in the whole government is going to come to us."
Farbrother, a passionate proponent of providing flexibility to field managers, wasted little time rattling cages at INS headquarters. He railed at what he believed was excess rigidity on the part of top INS managers, who only recently had reclaimed centralized control over district directors whose independent fiefdoms sometimes had produced embarrassing results. At one point, Farbrother lobbied unsuccessfully to have himself installed as the INS' deputy commissioner.
It was clear that red tape was preventing Citizenship USA from hiring badly needed temporary help. Farbrother recited a nightmarish scenario under which INS job openings in Miami had to be advertised through an Office of Personnel Management office in Memphis, Tenn., which then reviewed the responses and shipped them to a central INS facility in Minneapolis, which-after further review-sent the list of applicants to an INS regional office in Burlington, Vt.
By the time the dust settled, additional hiring authority-although not as much as Farbrother had suggested-was delegated to field managers, as well as authority to shift additional funds to the naturalization project. When the 1996 fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, the INS had processed 1.3 million naturalization requests and had approved citizenship for 1.1 million of the applicants-more than twice the number naturalized the year before.
Politics or Performance?
In an election year in which anti-immigrant sentiment appeared to be widespread, Kamarck argues that "it would have been pretty stupid and pretty risky for our own politics" to have embraced expedited naturalizations as an electoral strategy.
She also rejects the assumption that new citizens would necessarily flock to support the Democratic Party. "Frankly, in many of these places we didn't know who was going to vote for us and who wasn't. Asians . . . are not a Democratic vote. And the Cubans in Miami sure aren't. That may change over time, but you certainly couldn't have predicted it."
Kamarck accuses the Republicans who have taken potshots at Citizenship USA of misunderstanding where the "political pressure" was coming from. "The occasional references to Election Day were not coming from us," she contends, "they were coming from the community groups that were yelling at us."
That's not how the Republicans see it. In his Oct. 31 request for the appointment of an independent counsel, Rep. William H. Zeliff Jr., R-N.H., the departing chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee subcommittee on national security, international affairs and criminal justice, charged that "the Clinton Administration-motivated by the belief a large number of new citizens naturalized and registered to vote through the Citizenship USA program would provide a substantial benefit for the Clinton-Gore ticket in the upcoming elections-put heavy and enormous pressure on the INS to naturalize as many new citizens as possible, regardless of the consequences."
Those consequences, according to Zeliff, included an "alarming" pattern of fraud in the citizenship testing program run by private contractors and a "shocking" number of cases in which "violent criminals" obtained citizenship because the INS failed to wait for the results of FBI fingerprint checks or review court records.
Zeliff's panel held hearings in September featuring testimony from witnesses identified as INS whistleblowers.The INS is currently locked in a bitter dispute with subcommittee staff members over the actual number of cases in which ineligible persons may have been naturalized. The agency denies that it failed to adhere to its standard practice of waiting at least 60 days for the FBI to provide notification of past criminal records before moving forward to confer citizenship.
In late October, the House oversight panel publicized the fact that it had obtained records indicating that 50,000 people naturalized during the Citizenship USA initiative had fingerprints on record with the FBI. FBI officials cautioned the committee, however, that "the mere existence of such a record does not mean the person at issue has a criminal conviction."
California Gov. Pete Wilson weighed into the debate, saying he was troubled by reports that "perhaps thousands of criminal aliens have been granted citizenship as a result of the Clinton Administration's rush to naturalize new voters before Election Day." That brought a scolding response from Meissner, who noted in an Oct. 29 letter that the INS' denial rate for citizenship request over the last year was 18 percent, "which is at or above traditional levels."
The heated rhetoric about naturalization in the closing days of the election campaign may have had an effect at the ballot box. A pre-election poll of California Hispanics conducted by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Claremont, Calif., think tank, showed a sharp increase of support for the Democrats. At an Oct. 22 news conference, institute director Harry P. Pachon said: "Six years ago the new Latino vote was up for grabs. It appears that the drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric has moved the Latino electorate the Democratic Party."
On Election Day, Pachon's prediction was borne out. Clinton carried both California and Florida with greater shares of the Hispanic vote than he had won four years earlier. The President also won 53 percent of California's significant Asian vote, up from 39 percent in 1992.
But the election did not end the debate. In a Nov. 15 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Zeliff said his subcommittee was reviewing 60,000 cases and that he believes "thousands of ineligible and dangerous criminals" were naturalized within the last year, among them "murderers, rapists, drug traffickers [and] child molesters."
At the INS, however, officials predicted that very few-perhaps a fraction of 1 percent-of the 1.1 million people who have become citizens since August 1995 will be found to be unqualified.
NEXT STORY: Promises, Promises