WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than 1 million people took the Oath of Allegiance and became U.S. citizens during fiscal 2008, the largest number in the 100 years the government has been keeping records, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
More than 1 million people took the Oath of Allegiance in 2008, according to the government.
A fee increase that paved the way for adding personnel and overtime, and smoother coordination with the FBI were keys to reducing a backlog of citizenship applications, the department said Thursday.
That backlog was a product of a 2007 spike in applications for citizenship, coming on top of decades of increases in the number of people navigating the protracted naturalization process that culminates in the oath and full citizenship rights.
Last year's spike was prompted by Hispanic media and grass-roots organizations that encouraged eligible residents to apply for citizenship during the heated debate on granting citizenship to undocumented residents.
The number of naturalization applications doubled from 730,000 in 2006 to almost 1.4 million in 2007.
The surge led to a 16- to 18-month delay in processing naturalization applications, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting Director Jonathan Scharfen said Thursday. But the agency has reduced processing times to no more than 10 months and is on track to reduce the wait to five months by next summer, he said.
The fee increase enabled the agency to hire 1,600 adjudication officers and pay for employee overtime during fiscal 2008, he said.
Additionally, the agency has worked with the FBI to speed name checks, reducing a backlog of 350,000 checks to 33,000, Scharfen said.
"We had people waiting five years for an FBI name check," he said, but now every case is cleared within a year.
By next summer, 98 percent of name checks will be done within 30 days, he said. The change is improving the nation's security, because it reduces the amount of time questionable people can legally remain in the country, he said.
"We're back on track. We're back on goal to what we had promised the public with the fee increase," Scharfen said. "We're going to be able to do it."
"We did it because a lot of people worked very, very hard -- our new people and leadership in our offices. Folks were working Saturdays and Sundays," he said.
The growth in immigrants gaining citizenship has occurred alongside the much more publicized growth of unauthorized immigrants in the United States.
In the 1960s and '70s, the annual number of new citizens hovered in the 100,000 to 200,000 range. In the 1980s, the numbers were in the 200,000 to 300,000 range. But there was a spike in the mid-1990s after Congress voted to legalize 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. As a result, about 1 million people were naturalized in 1996.
Since then, the numbers have bounced between 441,000 and 886,000 a year. Part of the fluctuation has been the bureaucracy's inability to handle surges, culminating in the deluge of applications in 2007.
According to Homeland Security figures, an estimated 11.8 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States in January 2007, up from 8.5 million in 2000.