While the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service reported in January that the waiting time for green card application approval has been cut in half since 1999, local attorneys remain skeptical that a further significant reduction in the waiting period is imminent.

          The efforts to reduce waiting times also raise questions for the immigration agency, under increasing scrutiny since the events of Sept. 11, on such issues as priority processing and the need for internal restructuring, according to the attorneys interviewed by GlobalFax.

In a recent speech at the National Immigration Forum, INS Director James Ziglar said the average processing time for green cards was down to 13 months from its recent high of 33 months in 1999 and would continue to decrease as part of President Bush’s $500 million initiative to establish a six-month processing time standard for immigration applications by 2003.

Despite his remarks, several of the Atlanta attorneys questioned were doubtful:  The lawyers, Robert Banta of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy P.C., Daryl Buffenstein of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, Socheat Chea, solo practitioner, Mark Newman of Troutman Sanders LLP and Teri Simmons of Arnall Golden & Gregory LLP, said the goal could be overly ambitious, given the current backlog of more than 50,000 cases.

At least one lawyer remained nonetheless optimistic that the regional INS office here could achieve the government’s goal. Beryl Farris, a solo practitioner in Atlanta, said the city’s new INS director, Rosemary Melville, has already succeeded in reducing wait times from 34 months to less than 18 months, due in part to the increased number of cases agency officers are required to process daily.

However, Ms. Simmons, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, noted that the national averages pointing to a decline in wait times do not differentiate between family- and employment-based permanent residency applications. 

Employment-based candidates must currently file a separate application for labor certification, an often-lengthy process by which U.S. companies prove to the government that no U.S. workers are more or equally qualified for a specific job, she explained.

Mr. Buffenstein, also a past president of the immigration association, agreed that the system would be more efficient if immigration petitions and labor certification were processed together, not as separate filings.

The attorneys also remain divided on the notion of priority processing, which allows candidates for permanent residency or citizenship to pay a $1,000 fee to the INS, assuring more immediate attention to their applications.

The payment will certainly expedite the process for those who can pay, said Mr. Newman.  But it may also serve, in the long run, to lengthen the application process for those who can ill-afford the added expense.

For more information, visit www.ins.gov