Jose Victor, an immigrant from Guatemala who works as a waiter in Long Island, didn’t pay much attention to the Republican National Convention being held nearby in New York City a couple of weeks ago. Not because he’s uninterested in the country’s state of affairs, but because as a lawful permanent resident, he cannot vote.

Jose is denied the right to vote because his application to become a U.S. citizen, filed four years ago, has disappeared into a black hole of immigration processing. Jose passed his naturalization exam and interview in 2002, but he’s still waiting to be sworn in.

“I have not done anything wrong. I work, I pay my taxes, so I don’t understand why I haven’t gotten citizenship yet,” said Jose. “I have met other people who applied for citizenship after I did, and they are already finished. In a way, I feel discriminated against.”

Jose’s situation is “a classic case,” said Elsa Blanco, immigration coordinator with La Fuerza Unida, an agency that serves Hispanic immigrants in Glen Cove, N.Y. “Once something falls off the shelf, you don’t know where it lands, and it’s difficult to locate. Some immigration officer leaves his job — you don’t know what happens to his files. They get lost in the shuffle.”

Immigration officials acknowledge that some cases get lost and say they are making a special effort to resolve them. Even the cases that don’t get lost take far longer than they should, say immigrant advocates.

Immigration backlogs became an issue during the 2000 presidential campaign after the record-high backlogs of the late 1990s. In response, then-candidate George W. Bush promised Latino and other immigrant voters that he would reduce processing times for all immigration applications to six months or less.

“But the backlogs have only grown worse since then, in some cases reaching new record-highs,” said Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “The President and Homeland Security Secretary Ridge have let immigration-processing backlogs balloon over the last several years, and now they want immigrants to pay higher fees to wait, only God knows how long, for their applications to be reviewed.”

The total number of applications of all types pending with the immigration service has grown by nearly 60 percent since 2000, to 6.2 million, according to a recent report by the General Accounting Office. Processing times in many jurisdictions have increased significantly. In New York and Miami, it now takes 19 months to complete a naturalization case — nearly double what it used to take less than two years ago, according to figures from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Several factors account for the increase in backlogs, said Fred Tsao, immigration and citizenship director with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago, where it takes around two years for immigrants to complete the green-card process. “The administration just hasn’t put sufficient resources into addressing processing delays. Part of it also has to do with the multiple layers of name checks that are run on every application, even on people who clearly pose no threat to security.”

“Even when the immigration service makes progress on, say, the green-card backlog, that comes at the expense of naturalization, which takes much longer now than it used to,” added McHugh. “Immigrants are frustrated by the government’s shell game of shifting staff from one backlog to another, while no real progress is ever made in fixing the system. President Bush and Secretary Ridge insult immigrants’ intelligence by saying that the agency can reengineer its way out of the backlogs without adding more adjudications staff.”

Despite the frustration that many immigrants feel when dealing with the plodding pace of immigration processing, immigration officials assert that they have nothing to apologize for, calling the delays an unavoidable result of new security measures. Officials have set a new target date of 2006 for reducing processing times to six months.

As for Jose, it’s about time for another visit to the immigration office to check on the status of his application. “The last time I was at Federal Plaza, they told me 60 to 90 days. It’s been eight months now.”

– Norman Eng is a lawyer who writes on immigration policy for the New York Immigration Coalition (