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After years of delay, lawsuits jumpstart path to US citizenship

After years of delay, lawsuits jumpstart path to US citizenship

Issameldin Mohamed, a native of Egypt, explained that he was not entirely sure that suing the U.S. government was a good idea.
"In (Egypt), if you sue the government, there's something wrong here," he said, pointing to his head to indicate how foolhardy it would be.
But Mohamed, 45, of Owings Mills, Maryland, was out of patience, having waited the better part of 10 years to obtain citizenship. Since 2005, he had passed his citizenship test, and was waiting only for his name to be cleared in a government background check.
Finally, after filing a lawsuit in October at U.S. District Court in Baltimore that named Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, FBI Director Robert Mueller and other top government officials as defendants, his naturalization application was approved. On Dec. 14, he became a citizen.
"I believed it only when they called my name and gave me my certificate," Mohamed said.
Mohamed and an increasing number of immigrants have decided to sue in federal court to force the government to take action on their citizenship applications.
At the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, roughly 100 lawsuits have been filed in 2007 demanding action on stalled citizenship applications. That represents roughly 8 percent of the entire civil docket at the courthouse, which is among the busiest in the nation.
The lawsuits cite federal law requiring agencies to act on a petition within 120 days after it has been reviewed. Rarely do the lawsuits go before a judge, according to a review of court records. Usually, the plaintiff agrees to drop the case after receiving assurances that it will be resolved quickly and favorably.
Morris Days, an attorney with the Maryland-Virginia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has helped Mohamed and 15 others file similar petitions at federal courthouses in the region in recent months.
Days said six already have received citizenship papers or are about to, and he is optimistic that all the applications will be approved.
The holdup invariably is the name check, Days said. Muslims are particularly vulnerable to delays, he said, because names of innocent immigrants get confused with those on terror watch lists.
Days noted that Mohamed worked for several years as an armed security guard and was permitted to carry a firearm but, as a noncitizen, was barred from voting. The delays cause real harm for people, he said. Certain jobs are off limits to noncitizens, adopting a child can prove difficult and people are often separated from their families.
Delays of two, three or four years are not uncommon, he said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, the federal agency responsible for processing citizenship applications, has acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of applicants have experienced unacceptable delays because of backlogs in the background checks, which are conducted by the FBI.
Spokesman Chris Bentley said 90 percent of the background checks are completed within six months, but that still leaves a current backlog of 150,000 cases that have been pending six months or longer. An ombudsman for the agency says the numbers are even worse _ that nearly a third of name checks have been pending for more than a year.
At the Alexandria courthouse, most of those who have filed petitions have Muslim or Middle Eastern names, though a few Chinese and Hispanic names are in the mix.
Bentley acknowledged that Arabic names can be cumbersome in terms of completing background checks because of the language differences, confusion over common names and a lack of interpreters.
"All the variations of a name have to be checked," he said. "We empathize with the people whose applications are being delayed, but we are committed to doing the name checks properly."
Mohamed said he never was given an official reason for his delays, but he knows what the problem was.
"I am a Muslim. My name is Mohamed," he said.
For years he watched colleagues at work from European countries receive their citizenship papers while his application was lost in the bureaucracy.
"I started to lose hope," he said.
Shazia Naz, 34, of Fairfax, also received her citizenship earlier this month after suing the government in July in federal court in Alexandria. She had passed her citizenship test in February 2006 but never received final approval; immigration officials told her the delay was because of her name and the inability to complete the background check.
She said it would have cost her as much as $5,000 (euro3,475) to hire an immigration lawyer, but she filed the suit herself with assistance from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The day she received the call that her application had been approved, she took the citizenship oath at a ceremony in Fairfax.
"I thought that if I didn't go right away, who knows what might happen" to stall the process again, said Naz, a native of Pakistan.
Bentley acknowledged that there has been a big jump nationally in the use of federal lawsuits to prompt action on citizenship applications. In California, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit complaining that the checks are taking too long.
In the last year, Bentley said, USCIS has stopped expediting cases in which lawsuits are filed because of the volume.
But Days said he is confident that the lawsuits are the only thing that jarred USCIS into action on behalf of his clients.
"If you file the suit and do the right things, they will relent," he said.


Updated : 2021-07-31 05:37 GMT+08:00