Dallas_Some 48 students fill each of the auditorium-style classrooms, their bulky Immigration Law Handbooks tabbed with dozens of colorful stickies and laptop computers within reach.
For the next six weeks, the men and women who make up each class will study topics such as logic, ethics, legal decision-making, discretion, immigration history and trends.
Their classes are part of a nationwide effort by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to recruit and train hundreds of new employees who will help tackle the agency's mountainous backlog of cases.
Awaiting each of the students upon graduation will be a pile of petitions, some more than a year old. One by one, these adjudicators, as they are called, will decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of people anxiously waiting to come to the U.S., to remain here and work or to become citizens.
Since October, the agency has added 830 adjudication officers to its ranks, bringing the total working at immigration offices nationwide to 3,775. Another 590 are expected to be trained by the end of the year.
It's all part of a renewed push to clear pending cases and to approve or deny most applications within six months. It has not been uncommon for some immigrants, who pay hundreds of dollars in filing fees, to spend a year or more awaiting a decision on their status.
About 1.4 million people applied for naturalization in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007, nearly double the number of petitions filed the previous year. Driving the surge was a rush to file petitions before a planned fee increase took effect last summer and the upcoming presidential elections.
Overwhelmed, the agency warned that anyone who had applied after June 1, 2007, would likely wait 15 to 18 months to attain citizenship. That alarmed many applicants, who had hoped to become citizens in time to vote in November.
The agency has since said the waits will be shorter, but it won't say by how much.
Several CIS offices around the country have only just finished processing citizenship applications filed last July. Others are even further behind. The Miami field office recently completed naturalization petitions filed in April 2007 and Phoenix was still backlogged to June of last year.
The agency is confident the infusion of new adjudicators will help it handle the surge of immigrants. Costs are covered by the fee increase that took effect last year.
"Looking at the numbers, the vast majority of offices ... are going to meet their six to nine months" goal, said Stella Jarina, director in residence of the USCIS Academy Training Center in Dallas.
The center has graduated 479 adjudicators since opening in January, Jarina said.
Those who have been pushing the agency to speed up the petition process say they've seen improvements, but for many hoping to become citizens it may be too little, too late.
"My sense is there is going to be a dent, but not a significant dent in the process of applications in time for a majority of those who applied last year to be able to vote in this presidential election," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at NYU School of Law. "There has been some catching up both in terms of resources and recruitment but not enough to meet the response of the challenge that the surge presented."
The agency points out, however, that more adjudication officers are still being hired and trained. About 285 are enrolled in classes now under way in Dallas, Jarina said. Another 290 are registered for future sessions.
Most of the future adjudicators have college degrees in such fields as communications, prelaw, sociology, psychology and international studies. Some are naturalized citizens and many speak a language in addition to English.
They spend each eight-hour day digesting immigration statutes, understanding naturalization and learning the various classifications for immigrants.
As part of their coursework, students also take the same citizenship test that their future customers must pass in order to become citizens.
After graduation, each class travels to the National Benefits Center at Lee's Summit, Mo., where students get at least a week of on-the-job training under the supervision of seasoned adjudicators before taking up cases on their own at USCIS offices throughout the country.
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