'System error' causes USCIS to send citizenship applicants to the wrong city

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A small crowd gathered Friday morning at the federal courthouse in Downtown Anchorage, anxiously awaiting the start of a naturalization ceremony, an event typically full of people euphoric both to become Americans and to be done with the bureaucratic marathon required to become a U.S. citizen.

This time around, it quickly became clear that something was off.

All nine applicants hoping to take an oath to the United States had received an N-445 form in the mail from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service which said, "You are scheduled to appear for a naturalization oath ceremony," and the address listed in the middle of the forms was capitalized and in bold ("222 W. 7th Ave., Federal Building, Anchorage, AK.")

Security workers at the federal building, however, shrugged when asked where the naturalization ceremony was happening, and the U.S. District Court eventually realized the only naturalization ceremony happening in the Last Frontier on Friday was hundreds of miles away in Juneau.

If the situation was not so frustrating, Maria Hamrick may have laughed right away. Hamrick, who is from the Philippines and came to America seven years ago, is a resident of Juneau. She took time off work and spent thousands of dollars so she and her husband could attend the naturalization ceremony.

Hamrick said she was aware that a ceremony was happening in Juneau and called USCIS to see if she could attend in her hometown.

"I knew there was a ceremony happening in Juneau on the third week of August, and I asked, 'Why can't I just attend it in Juneau?'" she said in an interview. "They told me, 'Absolutely not. 'No. Just follow what's on your paper.'"

Kartikasari Klaresta traveled from Ketchikan -- nearly 800 miles -- for the ceremony.

"It's frustrating," she said. "It's just inconvenient because we all took off work."

While the outlook at the beginning of the day was grim, the court officials sprang into action when they realized what was happening.

Judge Tim Burgess cleared out his courtroom and volunteered to officiate the ceremony along with a USCIS official from the Anchorage field office. Acting U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder was enlisted to deliver a speech to the new citizens and their family members.

"It's unusual that there was an error where some of the new U.S. citizens got a notice to be in Anchorage when the ceremony was in Juneau," Schroder said. "But I give the court system here great credit. They knew this was a special day for these folks, and they put on a ceremony. It was really a joy to be in there to watch these new citizens and how happy they are. They've worked very hard to get where they are."

USCIS, in response to questions from Channel 2 News, acknowledged that "a systems error resulted in some of the applicants being directed to the wrong location, but all were naturalized today as scheduled," spokesperson Patricia Ryan wrote in an email. "To our knowledge, this has never happened before. USCIS is working to identify the source of the error and correct it."

The agency offered no additional details about the systems error, but Anchorage immigration attorney Margaret Stock said that USCIS officials believe the problem was due to a flaw in a new computer system the agency is using, the Electronic Immigration System, nicknamed "ELIS."

Just last month, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee railed against ELIS before the agency restarted the system after it was taken out of service for months.

"It's a threat to our national security if we're sending out incorrect or duplicate green cards which could wind up in the hands of terrorists or criminals," wrote Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the magazine FCW reported.

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