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U.S. hires consultant to study naturalization process

Responding to scathing congressional criticism, the Clinton administration has taken the unusual step of hiring an outside consultant to conduct a multimillion-dollar review of the naturalization process to safeguard the integrity of the system that monitors who becomes U.S. citizens.

Attorney General Janet Reno announced the move Thursday and called it an important milestone in an effort to revamp a process that congressional oversight committees say has virtually broken down, allowing tens of thousands of applicants to become citizens without required FBI criminal background checks.

Meanwhile, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner said that investigators thus far have found only 168 cases of felons who apparently were naturalized and now face having their citizenship revoked. House Republicans heading the investigation of citizenship practices have predicted that the number ultimately will be in the thousands.

Selected to lead the $4.3-million citizenship re-engineering effort, said Reno, is Coopers and Lybrand, an accounting and consulting firm based in McLean, Va.

The review, expected to last as long as two years, is to encompass every facet of citizenship, Reno said, from initial applications through adjudication, the swearing-in ceremony and even the retirement of case records. Along with enhancing integrity, Reno said she hopes to reduce paperwork and improve service in a program that now faces a quickly expanding backlog of almost 1-million applicants.

"Sometimes by streamlining you achieve more integrity because you don't let things get lost in a corner," Reno said.

Despite Reno's optimistic words, leading Republicans vowed to press their own oversight inquiries.

"The award of this contract looks like a signed confession that the naturalization process is in disarray," said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary immigration and claims subcommittee.

Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on national security, called the Justice Department's decision a positive sign. However, Hastert added, "it should have been done months ago."