Want to Be an American? Take a Number

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Millions of new arrivals to the U.S. -- and some not-so-new ones -- would like nothing better than to become U.S. citizens. But first they have to navigate a jungle of bureaucracy: lost files, long delays and applicants never called back. The wait, which used to average six months, now stretches to as long as three years thanks to a law passed in 1997 that threatened the loss of federal benefits to foreign-born residents, which encouraged them to apply for naturalization in record numbers.

Now the Immigration and Naturalization Service says it will hire some 300 workers to process applications, and institute a hotline that would answer common questions about becoming a citizen. "It will make a big difference," says TIME national correspondent Margot Hornblower. California, which has the longest waiting list with some 400,000 names on it, will get the most help, with 56 new INS jobs created. "Many people have lived here for decades," says Hornblower. "And they were content to live here without being naturalized until they felt threatened by laws such as Proposition 187, which affected their health care." She points out, however, that the new push to integrate existing residents into the American mainstream "doesn't change the efforts of the Clinton administration to crack down on illegal immigration." For prospective Americans outside the country's borders, the wait will be much longer.