THE U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) reported lots of good news in a press release last week, including the fact that more than one million immigrants became naturalized U.S. citizens during fiscal year 2008, which ended on September 30 of this year.

"The tremendous dedication and hard work of more than 18,000 USCIS employees and contractors has resulted in the continuous progress we've realized this past year," acting USCIS director Jonathan Scharfen said.

"We set aggressive goals to reduce application processing times, further cut the FBI name check backlog, and began a viable transformation process for the agency. I'm proud to say that we are achieving those goals while ensuring that national security is an essential part of our ongoing customer service improvements."

To be exact, 1.17 million new citizens were processed during the fiscal year, a more than 50% increase from 2007. The increase isn't a surprise considering that the often-beleaguered agency cut naturalization processing times from 16-18 months to 9-10 months.

According to USCIS, the agency also hired 1,600 new adjudications officers during the year. And USCIS worked with the FBI to effectively eliminate all name checks pending more than two years, and reduced the cases waiting for a name check final result from almost 350,000 in late fiscal year 2007 to less than 37,000.

What's in store for the new year? USCIS aims to further cut processing times by another 20% for most applications. The goal is to make naturalization candidates wait no more than five months after filing, while those adjusting their status can expect a four month wait, all going to plan.

"We're proud of 2008 and the milestones we've met," Scharfen said. "But much work remains. We are gearing up for 2009 with a forward-looking and robust agenda that will result in an even better immigration service for our customers and our great nation."

Speaking of processing times, they still wildly vary depending on the applicant's place of residence. For naturalization applications, not surprisingly, urban areas with high immigrant populations such as Newark, New Jersey, New York City, Miami, Washington, D.C. and Tucson, Arizona have the longest waiting times, with Tucson and D.C. particularly lengthy. In those areas, cases filed in July of 2007 are now being processed.

Some areas of the U.S., though, have already met USCIS targets for the coming year. Those filing naturalization applications in Wichita, Kansas and Yakima, Washington only have to wait five months from start to finish.

Probably most, and hopefully all, customers of USCIS are aware that they can check the status of a pending case online at All they need is a receipt number to get the process started.

A quick reminder that the annual diversity green card lottery is ongoing until December 1. All applications have to be lodged electronically at That site also has a complete list of instructions for applicants.

Those who are undocumented should not apply for the lottery. Perhaps with the new Democratic administration coming in January, there will be better news on a comprehensive immigration reform package that will benefit the undocumented, one of President-elect Barack Obama's campaign promises.