If everything goes Mohammed Lamaffar's way, he will be a U.S. citizen before his Army unit ships out to Iraq later this year.
Lamaffar is from Morocco. He has been in this country since 2000 and applied for citizenship as soon as he was eligible — two years ago. His file has been entangled in the FBI's background check process ever since.
Lamaffar's laywer, Ame Coats, has been trying to shepherd his paperwork through the naturalization process for two years now and has been taken aback by how long the process has become. She has a small immigration practice in North Carolina and says she has five or six clients who are facing the same glacial approval process.
"Some of the wait times have been ridiculous," she says. "And there is nothing I can do, as their lawyer, to try to speed this process up."
When Lamaffar enlisted in the Army, recruiters assured him at the time that they could help expedite his citizenship application. Now, as he prepares to deploy, it appears that the U.S. government trusts Lamaffar enough to give him a gun to fight in Iraq, but not quite enough to make his a bona fide American. Lamaffar will be a translator for his unit. He speaks Arabic and English.
"It was time for me to give something back," he says, explaining why he joined up and is ready to go to Iraq — even without a nod from immigration officials. "I do feel like I am an American already," he said. "They need a linguist and I am glad I can help. That's the reason I joined the Army."
A Backlog of Background Checks
The problem isn't entirely of the FBI's making, according to the bureau's assistant director, John Miller. A background check used to consist of looking to see whether a person was under investigation by the FBI. Now immigration officials want to know if the person's name has come up in any other investigations.
That meant the FBI suddenly had to redo some 2.7 million checks. Miller said that load was added to the 3 million background checks the FBI typically gets every year; the result was that the bureau was overwhelmed.
"When you hand someone — with a staff of 30 [people] — 2.7 million names and say, 'Do them over' — and not just do them over, but where there are issues and questions and missing files, 'Resolve those issues' — you are going to have a challenge on your hands," Miller says.
To combat the problem, Miller says the FBI is raising the fees they charge various agencies so they can hire more staff. A typical background check costs about $2. The FBI is raising the fee to $9.
FBI officials are also talking to the Department of Homeland Security about borrowing some of their employees to clear out the backlog. And they are discussing how they might change FBI criteria to make the process more efficient.
"There is a perception born of these stories that we're indifferent," Miller says. He adds, "But we're processing them faster than we are taking them in."
Interviews Indefinitely Postponed
It's not just the applications bearing Middle Eastern names that get flagged. Consider the case of Ruth Caracter.
Caracter moved to Sioux City, Iowa, from Denmark. She has had a green card for more than a half-century. She started a business making specialty cakes and even ended up marrying three Americans – two of whom served in World War II and another who served in Korea. Two years ago, at the age of 74, she finally decided that she would never return to Denmark, so it was probably time to become a U.S. citizen.
"I've already made my funeral plans, and I thought I might as well be a citizen, too," she says. "I love this country."
Last month, she received a letter that said her interview for naturalization was "de-scheduled" — indefinitely postponed — because her FBI background check was still pending. Caracter, who paid $400 for her citizenship test and all the necessary paperwork, has run out of patience.
"You know, I am getting a little sick of it," she says. "Especially when you have paid your $400 and you wait and wait and wait, and you feel like you have kind of been took."
According to Miller, only about 30 percent of applicants are running into such difficulties. Caracter and Lamaffar happen to have fallen into that category.
Lamaffar, for his part, is still preparing for his deployment to Iraq. He says that when he joined the Army, he promised to protect this country, and that is still his intention. He just hopes that he gets to do so as a full-fledged citizen.