updated 2/13/2004 8:42:00 AM ET 2004-02-13T13:42:00

Under order from a federal judge, the U.S. government must grant permanent resident status to nearly 22,000 people nationwide and must ensure that all asylum holders have proper work documents.

The mandate was issued Thursday by U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, who called the government’s treatment of asylum holders “nothing short of a “national embarrassment.”

Kyle’s directions came in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of 150,000 asylum holders by the American Immigration Law Foundation of Washington, D.C.

Those who are to be granted permanent residency immediately have faced years of bureaucratic delays in upgrading their status, and Kyle called on the government to speed up the entire permanent residency process.

“We think it’s a very strong opinion and should send a message to the government,” said Nadine Wettstein, director of the foundation’s Legal Action Center.

Administration weighs response
A Justice Department spokesman in Washington said the agency hadn’t seen the decision and would have to review it before deciding how it would proceed.

Besides the nearly 22,000 getting their green cards, Kyle’s decision means a shorter wait for about 130,000 other applicants, Wettstein said. She estimated it will still take 12 to 13 years to clear the backlog for permanent resident status unless Congress changes the law.

Delays in getting permanent residency mean delays in getting citizenship because a permanent resident must wait five years before becoming a citizen.

Under federal law, the government can give permanent resident status to 10,000 refugees each fiscal year. But from 1994 to 2002, the government failed for various reasons to use all the allotted slots, leaving nearly 22,000 applicants stuck on the waiting list. The government claimed the unused slots expired at the end of each fiscal year.

Legal obligation cited
Kyle disagreed, saying the government is legally obligated to fill those slots.

On the work permits issue, the judge said the law clearly requires the government to issue them to all asylum holders, that it can’t require them to reapply for those documents annually at a cost of $120 as it now does, and that the permits must remain valid as along as a person has asylum.

Kyle gave both sides 60 days to negotiate a schedule for complying with his order, or he’ll set the deadlines himself.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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