USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez took umbrage last week with a March 19 New York Times editorial (“Citizenship, Thwarted”) published the day before:

My posting today demonstrates to the more than 700,000 newly naturalized citizens that this country embraces free and open debate. It is a shame, however that a newspaper like the New York Times – which boasts with each paper that it contains all the news that’s fit to print – only values its version of a story and leaves no room for that debate or for the facts.

It’s a case of selective-perception umbrage. Despite the rosy picture of speedy naturalizations that Mr. Gonzalez tries to paint (“[an unspecified] many of the applicants who filed for citizenship after July 2007 have already been naturalized”), the USCIS processing page candidly reveals that “naturalization applications filed after June 1, 2007 may take approximately 16-18 months to process.” The point of the Times’ editorial was that a significant number of naturalization applicants will be ineligible to vote in November 4, 2008 elections because USCIS cannot process their cases in time, despite a 66% filing fee increase that was supposed to improve agency processing time and the quality of service.

Mr. Gonzalez, whose resignation is effective April 18, offers an outraged reply that mischaracterizes the Times’ words. The paper said:

Maybe it’s a stretch to call this intentional disenfranchisement after hundreds of thousands of Latinos demonstrated in the spring of 2006, chanting: “Today we march. Tomorrow we vote.” Still, the absence of so many would-be Latino voters could benefit the Republicans, who have worked so hard to stoke a rancid anti-immigrant mood in this country.

Commissioner Gonzalez omits the tentative phrasing the editorial writer used (“[m]aybe it’s a stretch to call this intentional disenfranchisement”), and fails to acknowledge the editorial’s point, namely, that the agency’s inability to naturalize a large pool of Hispanic voters – who typically vote blue – could disfavor Democrats and help Republicans.

The Commissioner’s reply also mischaracterizes the Times’ editorial when he addresses the agency’s acknowledged delay in opening applicants’ mail and issuing receipts, describing the Times’ comments as “an outright fabrication, hastily conceived by an imaginative writer.” The writer was not addressing the present circumstances (because by now the mail has been opened and the processing begun), rather the editorialist was referring to how history will report on Mr. Gonzalez’s tenure:

Mr. Gonzalez will soon have time to reflect on a dismal monument to his tenure: the dreams of thousands of rule-following, line-waiting, would-be Americans, signed, sealed in envelopes with large checks and money orders, delivered by truckloads, waiting in shrink-wrapped pallets, unopened.

Perhaps the reference to “shrink-wrapped pallets” is hyperbole, but the truth is that there have been significant delays in the agency’s opening of envelopes and issuance of receipts, as the USCIS continues to acknowledge with a “Processing Delay” FAQ link on the left side of its home page.

The more fundamental truth is that despite Mr. Gonzalez’s laudable effort to pump up the flagging spirits of USCIS personnel in his March 20 posting, history will judge this political appointee as largely ineffectual.

Mr. Gonzalez’s talk of technology enhancements (“[m]odernization efforts to build a fully-electronic immigration platform continue to move forward.”) seem like vaporware given the the ageny’s oft-repeated grand pronouncements of modernization. Truth is we still can’t file supporting documents online when petitions and applications are submitted through the E-Filing system.

His talk of promised actions (“more than half of all the citizenship applications received in June and July will be completed by September 30”) must await the “walk-the-walk” proof from an agency not known for accurate predictions on processing time. Increasingly, courts are ordering the USCIS to grant long-delayed naturalization applications, and requiring the government to pay attorney fees. See, “Courts Award Attorneys’ Fees in Naturalization Delay Cases,” published by the Litigation Action Center of the American Immigration Law Foundation. Mr. Gonzalez, who will pay these attorneys’ fees? Will these costs too be heaped onto the backs of U.S. citizens and employers who sponsor legal immigrants?

Perhaps, Mr. Gonzalez, as you enter retirement and ponder your time at the helm of USCIS, you might gradually understand the feelings of applicants for naturalization who cannot vote in the coming election but still must pay the exorbitant filing fees that (as the Times noted) keep “the rickety [immigration] system going.”