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Immigrants who want to become American citizens used to be able to fill out an application after they lived here five years, send a copy of their green card to immigration, and get an answer in just a matter of weeks, maybe months. Now, because of a backlog of name checks at the FBI, the process is taking years.

NPR FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has this report.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: If everything goes Mohammed Lamaffar's way, he'll 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 two years ago. His file has been entangled in the FBI's background-check process ever since.

Mr. MOHAMMED LAMAFFAR (U.S. Army): They say the problem is the name check. And, I mean, I have no idea as to what's going on. I don't want to say and start losing trust, but it's just when you promise with something, I think you have to do it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When Lamaffar enlisted in the Army, recruiters assured him that they could help expedite his citizenship application. Now, as he prepares to deploy, it appears the U.S. government trusts him to fight in Iraq but not quite enough to make him an American. Lamaffar says he feels like an American even without the paperwork, and he's happy to go to Iraq and be a translator on the front lines.

Mr. LAMAFFAR: I do feel like am an American. They need a linguist, someone who speaks languages, and, you know, I'm proud that I can help. So I guess that's the reason I joined the Army.

TEMPLE-RASTON: FBI Assistant Director John Miller said the problem isn't entirely of the FBI's making. A background check used to consist of looking to see whether a person was under investigation by the FBI. Now Immigration wants to know if the person's name has come up in any other investigations. That meant the FBI had to redo some 2.7 million background checks. Miller said that load was added to the 3 million background checks the FBI typically gets every year, and the bureau got overwhelmed.

Mr. JOHN MILLER (Assistant Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): You know, when you hand somebody who's got a staff of 30, 2.7 million names and say do these over. And not just do them over but, you know, where there are issues or questions or a missing file somewhere resolve those issues, you're going to have a challenge on your hands.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Miller said the FBI is raising the fees they charge various agencies so they can hire more staff. They're talking to the Department of Homeland Security about borrowing some of their employees to clear out the backlog.

Mr. MILLER: There is this perception that is borne out of these stories, that we take these things in, we're indifferent to them, yeah, I'll get to it when I get to it and that we're sitting on it. We're processing them faster than we're taking them in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: For applicants, the process is more than a little frustrating, and it doesn't just take a Middle Eastern name to flag a file. Consider the case of Ruth Caracter. She moved to Sioux City, Iowa, from Denmark. She's had a green card for more than half a century. She started a business making specialty cakes and even ended up marrying three Americans. And two years ago, at the age of 74, she thought she would never return to Denmark so it was probably time to become a citizen.

Ms. RUTH CARACTER: I finally decided I'm going to stay; I'm never going back except for a visit now and then. And I've already made my funeral's plan and I figured I might as well be a citizen, too. I love this country.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Last month, she got a letter that said her interview for naturalization was de-scheduled or indefinitely postponed. That was 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.

Ms. CARACTER: Yes, I'm getting a little sick of it. Especially when you have paid your $400 and you sit here and wait and wait and wait, you feel like you've kind of been took.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI's Miller says only about 30 percent of the applications are having these kinds of difficulties. Lamaffar, for his part, is still preparing for his deployment in Iraq. He says that when he joined the Army, he promised to protect this country and that's still his intention. He just hopes he gets to do that as a full-fledged citizen.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.

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