WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Immigration and Naturalization Service is denying GOP complaints that election-year politics prompted its push to speed up processing of citizenship applications from immigrants.

Immigration officials appeared before a Senate subcommittee Wednesday to assure Congress that the program, Citizenship USA, was not designed to naturalize as many immigrants as possible in time to vote for Democrats in the November election.

Rather, the program was successful in reducing a huge backlog in applications, INS Associate Commissioner T. Alexander Aleinikoff told the Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee.

``We are proud of our accomplishments in the first year of Citizenship USA,'' he said. ``We have reduced processing times for citizenship applications nationwide to traditional levels while maintaining the integrity of the citizenship process.''

Some Republicans have accused the INS of pushing its employees to the brink in order to naturalize as many immigrants as possible before the election. Critics also have said the agency and the Clinton administration lowered the standards for becoming naturalized and allowed some criminals to become citizens.

Rosemary Jenks, director of policy analysis at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the conservative research group had documented the Republican complaints. The center's research ``presents a disturbing picture of change to the naturalization process, apparently motivated by election-year concerns that have far-reaching implications that will endure long after next month's balloting,'' she said.

Included in Jenks' inch-thick stack of papers was a March 28 e-mail to Vice President Al Gore from Gore aide Doug Farbrother, who complained the INS wasn't hiring people fast enough to ``produce a million new citizens before election day.''

Farbrother went on to say that ``unless we blast INS headquarters loose from their grip on the front-line managers, we are going to have way too many people still waiting for citizenship in November.''

INS spokesman Eric Andrus said nothing in the papers proves a link to election-year politics. Furthermore, Farbrother was conducting a performance review of the agency and did not have final say over INS policy, he said.

``Their outrageous, unsupported allegations are not true,'' Andrus said. ``The goal of Citizenship USA was to reduce the backlog down to traditional levels, which was a six-month waiting period. ... We never had a numerical goal.''

Citizenship USA began in August 1995 after the buildup of a backlog of naturalization applications from legal permanent residents.

By September 1995, the agency had 800,000 applications pending, but only enough staff to process little more than half of them, Aleinikoff told the immigration subcommittee.

Applications had risen from an average of 300,000 before fiscal 1994 to 1 million in fiscal 1996, many of them from illegal aliens who received amnesty in 1986 and now are becoming eligible for citizenship. Some applicants had to wait up to two years before they were sworn in a citizens.

Through new hiring and improvement management, the INS processed nearly 1.3 million in the program's first year and swore in ``1.1 million new American citizens without reducing standards or compromising the integrity of the citizenship process,'' Aleinikoff said.

The rejection rate was 17 percent, equal or higher than traditional levels, he said.