Delay in Muslims' Citizenship Process Leads to Suits

Twenty-five Muslims are suing the Justice Department and immigration officials, accusing them of stalling their citizenship applications with unreasonably prolonged background checks. The lawsuit says the plaintiffs have been waiting two to five years for their applications to be processed.

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To become a U.S. citizen, you first have to live in the U.S. legally for five years, then pass an interview, a test and a background check. The background check matches an applicant's name against law enforcement databases.

As NPR's Greg Allen reports, because of that check, hundreds of thousands of prospective U.S. citizens are left in limbo.

GREG ALLEN: There are people like Muzaffar Hussein Khan(ph). He immigrated legally from Pakistan in 1999, and now lives in Florida near Fort Lauderdale. After waiting the requisite five years, he says he applied for citizenship and was called for an interview and test in May of 2005.

Mr. MUZAFFAR HUSSEIN KHAN (Immigrant): And after our interview they say, you have to still wait for security clearance. And almost two and a half years, you know, my life is almost — I don't know what happened.

ALLEN: U.S. law says legal residents who apply for citizenship must be approved or denied no more than four months after passing an interview and test. The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services concedes that, right now, that's far from the case. Every citizenship applicant undergoes a fingerprint check and various screenings. What's caused a large and growing backlog, though, is the final step of the approval process, the name check. The FBI looks to see if the name matches or is similar to other names in its extensive case files.

Chris Bentley is spokesman with BCIS. He says it's a labor-intensive process.

Mr. CHRIS BENTLEY (Spokesman, Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services): If it's based on the name and not a specific indicator like a fingerprint, it's just going to take longer to make sure that you have exactly the person that you need information for before you can return the results.

ALLEN: Bentley says the intent is to protect homeland security. The practical result, though, has been a backlog of more than 300,000 names awaiting approval. The applicants who have been waiting the longest, says Altaf Ali, are Muslims. Ali is with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in South Florida.

Mr. ALTAF ALI (Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations): It was like the names being thrown into a deep well and forgotten. There were no answers to what's taking the investigations so long or the background check so long.

ALLEN: This week, The Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center filed three lawsuits against BCIS and the FBI on behalf of 25 Muslims who've been waiting three and four years for their name checks to be completed. They're just the latest of hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed across the country. Muzaffar Khan says, while friends receive their approvals and took their citizenship oaths, he was left in limbo. A situation he found hard to explain to his wife in Bangladesh.

Mr. KHAN: My wife - she not believe me. She say, everybody is passed citizenship, why you not pass? What's — something wrong, maybe? And she is very, very upset about me.

ALLEN: After waiting more than two years, Khan says he finally turned to CAIR and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which took his case to court. And that, he believes, made the difference. Two weeks later, his application had been approved by the government and he was taking his Oath of Citizenship.

Altaf Ali hopes that the lawsuits filed on behalf of 25 other Muslims waiting for citizenship will have similar results. But he believes it's time the government took a hard look at its name approval process. Ali says CAIR supports measures that protect homeland security.

Mr. ALI: But as of today, I have not heard of any individuals who are subjected to this increased background check had any ties to anything that can be considered a threat to the United States.

ALLEN: If it's not working, he says, why keep doing it? Officials with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services say they recognize the problem and are working with the FBI to streamline and speed up the name-checking process.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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