Background-Check Backlogs Delay Citizenship Bid

A Jordanian computer whiz whose application for U.S. citizenship has been stalled for two years because of a backlog of FBI background checks has won a lawsuit ordering completion of his case in the next 45 days.

Denver resident Zuhair Mah'd represented himself against the U.S. government in a case charging that it took too long for a name check.

Though the government was ordered to move faster in the case of Mah'd, about 200,000 applicants are still waiting for the FBI to finish name checks.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, this portion of security checks has been a drag on the clearance process.

"As I like to say, it was blindingly obvious to me that I have a solid case – no pun intended," Mah'd said, laughing. He is blind and earns a living making computers more accessible for people who can't see.

Mah'd came to the United States from Jordan as a college student when he was 17. He's now 33. He applied for citizenship in 2004.

The FBI checks a name (on behalf of immigration officials) against a huge database of people involved in FBI investigations – not only suspects, but also witnesses and victims.

Most names are cleared in a short time because they aren't in the database. But when there's a match, an analyst has to do some legwork to make sure the person hasn't done anything wrong.

Mah'd learned it could take years before the agency gets to him because of the backlog. He was disappointed but also determined.

"I am not going to just sit here and just wait and wait and wait and complain and say, 'I am being mistreated. The government is terrible. The government is not treating us right,' " he said, vowing not to play victim.

"I don't think the Founding Fathers would have started this country if they did that. They would have probably stayed in England," he added.

So Mah'd did some legal research and found that the government is supposed to complete the citizenship process within four months.

Frustrated after waiting for two years, he drew up his own legal papers and took the FBI and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to court. The USCIS is responsible for the administration of immigration and naturalization adjudication functions.

"It was a straightforward two-page complaint," Mah'd said.

After a few filings back and forth at U.S. District Court, the FBI was ordered to finish its name check within 45 days.

"We really do understand that on the other side of every name is a person's life that can be put on hold," said Mike Cannon, section chief for the bureau's National Name Check Program.

Prompt service isn't the bureau's only goal, he said. "We do our best to balance that with our mission to ensure that we provide the right information at the right time to our customers so they can make the right decisions to ensure the safety of our country."

Next fall, the bureau plans to raise fees for the program, which haven't gone up in more than 10 years, so it can hire more people and acquire software that will speed up the checks.

Meanwhile, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, has said it won't begin the citizenship process until name checks are complete. That way, it might avoid future legal cases like Mah'd's.

It also means that the required four-month clock will start much later, and that applicants effectively will wait just as long as before.

Cecelia Wang, an immigration attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, describes the tactic as an end-run around the law.

"We should remember, these are people who've been living here in the U.S. with green cards for at least five years. And so it doesn't make sense that a delay is going to protect us from any national security threats," Wang said.

Wang said she doesn't see evidence of discrimination. She said most people caught in the backlog come from places where names have to be transliterated, such as Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The government's checks still should be much faster, she added.

Meanwhile, Mah'd said he has one more thing that proves he has earned the right to be a U.S. citizen: "I've sued. That's as American as it gets."

He said he hopes to hand over his green card and pick up his citizenship papers any day.

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