A record numbers of immigrants in Utah want to become naturalized citizens. And just as more than 2 million immigrants nationwide find themselves on waiting lists, nearly 2,300 in Utah have seen unusual delays, as well.

But applicants in Utah are waiting only half as long - eight or nine months - as their national counterparts, said Meryl Rogers, director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Utah. In states with a large volume of applications, like New York, the wait could be years, instead of the six months it routinely took just two years ago.The immigrants are legal residents of the United States who have already, in most cases, waited five years to be eligible to seek naturalization. Citizenship status can mean the difference in keeping jobs, receiving benefits or being able to bring in relatives from outside the United States. And those who become citizens are also eligible to vote.

"(The Utah INS office) is no exception," said Rogers, "though there's not the horrendous waiting times that some (states) have. But this is as bad as it's ever been. The cases have gone up and we're locally back-logged."

Immigration officials see several reasons for the increase in applications - and the lengthy delays, said Andrew Lluberes, spokesman for the INS regional office in Denver.

Applications have tripled since 1984, he said. That occurred in part because the amnesty program in the late 1980s let people who were in the United States illegally register and fulfill other requirements to get

green cards, which provides "lawful permanent residence." After five years, green card holders can apply for naturalization and citizenship.

"That wait, for a huge group of people, is coming up," Lluberes said.

He also credited political debate on immigration with increasing the number of citizen wannabes. "It's become a hot topic politically in the last few years and raised the consciousness of the body political about immigration," putting pressure on immigrants to make sure their status is legal.

The third cause is, he said,"really anecdotal." Welfare reform passed by Congress a couple of years ago made those who are not citizens ineligible for public assistance, where before that, lawful permanent residents were entitled.

While Congress rolled back part of the ban by grandfathering legal residents into the Supplemental Security Income provision, Lluberes said that "for these reasons and probably some others, we have seen tripling in the applications since 1994."

Last year INS processed 1.6 million naturalization applications and expects an increase this year.

INS offices would have been able to keep up, lamented Lluberes and Rogers, except the workload tripled and the resources to deal with it didn't.

"Our staffing is about the same as it's been since I came here in 1985," Rogers said. "During that time, we've seen a great increase in the number of cases coming in. We can't keep up."

Staffing's not the only thing that didn't change to meet demand. "Our ways of processing applications remained the same and the system broke down," said Lluberes. "No big surprise there."

A year ago, INS "realized there was a serious problem and set out to fix it." It created a Naturalization Operations Division, which does nothing but process applications for citizenship. Those efforts have been delayed because funding from Congress wasn't available until November.

The INS received $211 million to begin restructuring, including money to hire more staff. Utah's office, for example, will hire two new employees. It also needs to fill two existing vacancies in the naturalization division.

A systemwide makeover includes a new fingerprinting process. By running it in-house, the INS has cut the time needed to get fingerprints classified and sent to the FBI, then returned, from six months to a maximum of 40 days. Next year, the process will be digital and the time required will be even shorter, Lluberes said. That's particularly important because some parts of the country are so backed up that criminal checks have expired and have to be repeated, creating more work and backlogs.

The paperwork itself can now be obtained by calling a toll-free number, by downloading it from the Internet or by visiting the INS office, which used to be the only way to get it. And the process can be started without fingerprints, which are added to the application later.

"In the past, districts were using different systems and some were still processing applications by hand. We've scrapped all that," Lluberes said. "By the end of the year, every application in the United States will be processed under the new system, in precisely the same way, with one single data base."