in Washington-Like an increasing number of couples, Ronald and Elena met in cyberspace. Ronald is an accountant in Texas who came out of jail in his mid-50s, after serving five years for embezzlement, committed to starting a new life in Christ. At about the time of his release, he found Elena, a teacher and school administrator in Venezuela, through a Christian meeting service. Ronald and Elena (who wanted their real names withheld to protect their privacy) exchanged e-mails daily for more than two months, and then tested their growing love by meeting in Miami last August. They planned to marry this summer, but found that this would require another run-in with the law-this time, American immigration law. Immigration lawyers told Ronald that marrying Elena in Venezuela would force him to apply for an I-130 form, and Elena would have to stay in South America while the government took at least 18 months to process the claim. The other option would be marrying inside the United States, which would only take about three months to process, and then the marriage must take place within 90 days of the fiancée's arriving in the country. "The real problem with this is that she would leave her country unmarried, which in her culture comes with a bad moral sense, and she is a strong Christian," Ronald explained. Ronald and Elena are part of a growing trend in American immigration: backlog. As Americans this month celebrate the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, most people's patriotism is balanced by the nightly news picture of America as a troubled land. But this same America remains the biggest immigrant magnet in history. Kevin Rooney, acting commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, recently told Congress that between 1993 and 2000, his agency "received and processed more applications for citizenship than during the previous 40 years combined." The United States accepts about a million immigrants a year, a number that rivals the heyday of the first decade of the 20th century. (Official numbers on emigration aren't available, but the Urban Institute has estimated about 200,000 people left America each year during the 1990s.) Yet the percentage of legal immigrants compared to the overall population is about a third of what it was during that Teddy Roosevelt-era influx-less than four immigrants per 1,000 people. But this large number of applicants has led to a large backlog of applications. While the INS boasts that it's reduced the backlog for people seeking naturalization from 2.2 million to 715,000 in the last two years, more than 3 million people still seek green cards, or legal resident status. Many applicants wait for years in their native countries for the chance to arrive. Since 1998, Congress has provided more than $300 million to modernize the INS naturalization process and hire staff to help reduce the backlog. President George W. Bush's first budget laid out $500 million over the next five years to achieve the goal of having all INS applicants processed in six months. The most regular path to immigration is through family ties-or "nepotism," as the anti-immigration Federation for American Immigration Reform puts it. But as Ronald and Elena learned, family ties are not an open-sesame command, and while the government denies few such requests, it can take years to process them. For two-country couples, true love not only waits, it fills out a ton of paperwork. On one website for similar couples, one couple announced it had taken 738 days from the filing of their I-130 green card form to their interview with an INS agent, the last step in the process. The application has become more complicated since 1996, when Congress required that family members of immigrants sign a declaration of financial support and prove a regular income with three years of tax returns. These new immigrants must become self-sufficient or rely on their sponsors, because they are ineligible for government programs during their first 10 years in America. Happily for couples like Ronald and Elena, President Bill Clinton signed the Legal Immigrant Family Equity Act on December 21 which, among other provisions, creates a new "K-3" visa that would allow foreign spouses to reside in the United States while the government processed their I-130 application. But the INS has yet to develop a procedure to handle the new program and is not accepting applications yet, more than six months after Mr. Clinton signed the bill. That makes it awfully hard to plan a wedding in any country, but Ronald and Elena still plan to marry in Venezuela this month.