Three Iraq combat veterans from Colorado have launched themselves on a new kind of mission abroad: fighting poverty as civilians. Discharged this year from the Quebec Battery, 5th Battalion, 14th Regiment of the 4th Marine Division, a reserve unit based at Buckley Air Force Base, the three are devoting themselves to humanitarian aid projects in Asia and Africa. A fourth is setting up a domestic violence support service he will pursue when he leaves the Marine Corps. “After you’ve experienced the world at its worst, it seems to be a natural instinct to want to make it better,” said Cpl. Brenton Hutson, 24, a Wheat Ridge High School graduate who joined the military at age 17 and served in Ramadi and Fallujah in 2006 during the worst of Iraq’s sectarian war. National veterans group leaders say the jump from combat to humanitarian aid is becoming common as Americans return from war and want more than a comfortable domestic existence.
Tough rules delay cases Anti-terrorism efforts require stricter proof of persecution, including documents that can “reasonably” be obtained.
Jailed and tortured in Ethiopia, Samuel Tafesa made it to Mexico,
then waded across the Rio Grande into the United States.
Now in Denver, he’s begging for asylum protection, claiming that
Ethiopian police beat him with sticks on the bottoms of his feet
and held his head under water, trying to coerce information about
fellow members of an opposition political party.
“I’m afraid to go back to Ethiopia,” he said. “If I go back,
I’ll be killed.”
For Tafesa and tens of thousands of other asylum-seekers, sanctuary
in America has become harder to attain. U.S. officials are
subjecting them to increasingly rigorous scrutiny, government
officials and legal experts say.
New anti-terrorism measures require stricter proof of persecution,
including documents that can “reasonably” be obtained.
Tafesa, 22, called back to Ethiopia repeatedly, asking his mother
to get what she can for his lawyer, Michael Litman.
Today’s higher standard of proof makes cases more complex and
prolongs them, with government attorneys sending documents to a
Homeland Security forensics lab for testing.
“We have a tradition, but we want to make sure people seeking
(asylum) have a rightful entitlement,” said Mike Everitt, a unit
chief in the lab near Washington, D.C.
The new measures are contributing to a record immigration-court
backlog – 3,370 cases pending in Denver, a third involving asylum,
federal statistics show. That’s double Denver’s pending caseload
six years ago.
Department of Justice officials said 166,200 cases are pending in
immigration courts nationwide, including 33,194 in Los Angeles,
8,546 in Chicago and 9,455 in Orlando, Fla. In 2000, 125,764 cases
Dana Marks, a sitting judge in California and president of the
National Association of Immigration Judges, said dozens more judges
The system is “unbelievably overburdened,” squeezing judges’
ability to make life-or-death decisions, Marks said.
“Why are we treating the asylum system this way? If we pride
ourselves in America for treating refugees right, why aren’t we
providing resources to ensure they get prompt and fair treatment?”
Now, fewer people are applying for asylum, though the reasons for
the drop aren’t clear.
Some 54,452 applications were received last year in immigration
courts, down from 74,627 in 2002 and 84,904 in 1997, records show.
Adjudicators for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration
Services, who often see asylum-seekers first, received 36,502
applications last year, down from 65,201 in 2002 and 149,000 in
1995, according to a senior USCIS official who spoke on condition
of anonymity, in accordance with agency policy.
In Denver, about one in three cases handled is approved. Asylum
experts say it’s too early to gauge whether the new standards for
proof will change that percentage.
USCIS adjudicators approved 27 percent of cases they handled this
year, down from 43 percent in 2001, according to the senior
official. In immigration courts, stats show 23 percent of
applications processed last year were approved, up from 20 percent
Previously, asylum-seekers often were accepted solely on the basis
of government “country condition” reports and testimony that
judges found to be credible and persuasive.
Today’s higher standards requiring documentation that could
“reasonably” be obtained “change the burden of proof,” the
official said. But “there’s still the allowance” that an
applicant who can’t obtain documents can win asylum if deemed
credible, he said.
“Out of reach for many”
One problem caused by the more frequent demand for documents is
that hiring document and medical experts raises legal costs, said
Regina Germain, legal director at the Rocky Mountain Survivors
Center and author of a legal text on asylum law.
“I fear recent changes … could put asylum out of reach for many
people who flee with little more than the clothes on their backs,”
In Tafesa’s case, an Addis Ababa police document his mother sent
says he was imprisoned for 17 days in 2005 for being a member of
the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party. The document accuses
him of involvement in “illegal demonstrations” and “promoting
unhealthy propaganda and causing conflict of people against
It says he was released from prison on the condition he cease all
political activity and check in weekly, which he failed to do. It
warns: “The police department will track you and your family
The government is vetting those documents. His case is scheduled
for a hearing in May.
Meantime, he works under a temporary permit, washing rental cars at
Denver International Airport for $8.85 an hour that he uses mostly
for legal fees.
His father and brother in Ethiopia have gone missing, and his
6-year-old son, Mathais, is bewildered, Tafesa said before work
“He asks me: ‘Where are you?’ I tell him I’ll be there one day,”
Tafesa said. “What can I do?”
New filings in the citizenship battle of a blind Palestinian
computer whiz show that the FBI completed its background check a
year ago but that Homeland Security officials then failed to rule
as required under federal law.
The government also has admitted it failed to comply fully with a
federal judge’s order to turn over the FBI background check
U.S. District Judge Walker Miller on Thursday reordered the
government to provide full results of the FBI check on Colorado
resident Zuhair Mahd – to be sealed and delivered by the end of
Government lawyers say the FBI never reveals background-check
results whether they are positive or negative. Revealing results
“may interfere with ongoing law enforcement or national security
investigations or interests,” according to U.S. Attorney Troy
Eid’s latest filing.
Eid on Thursday said: “The government will comply with the court
Department of Homeland Security citizenship spokesman Chris Bentley
declined to comment on the delays.
The case has revealed irregularities in how the government carries
out security checks on citizenship applicants under a system
instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mahd is among tens of
thousands of applicants nationwide who have passed tests but have
been left in limbo.
After applying for citizenship in September 2004 and passing tests
three months later, Mahd waited and waited, told by citizenship
officials that the FBI hadn’t completed his background check. In
May 2006, he filed a lawsuit to force action and won this year when
Miller ordered the FBI to complete the check in 45 days.
Then, citizenship officials rejected Mahd’s application after he
refused to submit to an additional videotaped interview.
A computer expert who pioneered text-to-speech software, Mahd, 34,
is representing himself. He was born totally blind to Palestinian
refugees in Jordan and came to the United States as a teenager with
the help of U.S. officials. He has worked for IBM and on government
contracts, living in the country legally for 17 years.
Judge Miller has asked government lawyers why Mahd shouldn’t be
U.S. Attorney Eid has argued Miller doesn’t have jurisdiction.
Federal judges once handled citizenship cases, but this duty was
transferred in the 1990s to the Department of Justice in an effort
to unburden courts.
U.S. immigration law says, however, that if applications of
immigrants who pass citizenship tests aren’t handled in 120 days,
the applicants can go to federal court and ask judges to decide.
Mahd said he’s bewildered to learn the FBI check has been done for
a year. He has appealed the denial.
“For all I know, they think I’m a heinous criminal or a
mischievous person. I’d like to clear this,” he said.
Judge exasperated at new delays in immigrant’s citizenship quest
Zuhair Mahd, a blind Palestinian computer programmer, has been in the U.S. legally for 17 years and passed his citizenship test in 2004.
A federal judge bristled with what he called “sheer disbelief” at
the government’s failure to follow his order in the case of a blind
Palestinian immigrant stalled in his quest for citizenship.
U.S. District Judge Walker Miller ordered federal authorities to
produce proof of an FBI background check of Colorado-based computer
expert Zuhair Mahd within 10 days.
Then, Miller said, he’ll decide whether he will rule on Mahd’s
long-delayed citizenship application – rather than leave it to the
Department of Homeland Security.
“This man’s been waiting since 2004,” Miller said. “This man has
The federal court action Friday in Denver gave a glimpse into what
have become widespread problems in the government’s
background-check program for all citizenship applicants to guard
against terrorism, started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Last month, Miller ordered the government to prove why Mahd
“should not be immediately naturalized.” In March, he ordered the
FBI to complete Mahd’s background check within 45 days – after Mahd
filed a federal lawsuit.
U.S. Attorney Troy Eid notified Miller that the check was done,
with results forwarded to immigration officials, yet no
documentation had been given to the court.
On Friday before Judge Miller, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth
Weishaupl argued that the judge has no jurisdiction to handle this
“I have the jurisdiction to determine whether my order has been
followed,” Miller said.
“What you are saying is: ‘You have to have a name check.’ But then
there’s nothing to show whether it’s been done. … I am not
satisfied,” he said.
Eid later issued a written statement: “We are confident that the
FBI completed the name check within the time frame mandated by the
court, and we look forward to proving this fact to the judge.”
Federal judges rarely rule on citizenship applications. In the
early 1990s, that responsibility was transferred to immigration
officials overseen by the Department of Justice so that courts
wouldn’t be bogged down.
But now immigration cases increasingly end up back in federal
court. Judges nationwide face multiplying cases filed by
citizenship applicants who have passed tests – but still aren’t
approved. The FBI is struggling to process hundreds of thousands of
U.S. law says immigrants who pass citizenship tests must have their
cases handled in 120 days. Otherwise, applicants can go to court
and ask judges to decide.
Mahd, 33, who has legally been in the U.S. for 17 years, passed his
citizenship test in December 2004.
He was born blind to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, and came to
the United States as a teenager with the help of U.S. officials. A
computer programmer, he has worked for IBM and on government
contacts, pioneering Arabic text-to-speech software.
After Mahd won his case compelling the FBI and Homeland Security to
handle his application, immigration officials demanded that he
provide additional documents and submit to videotaped interviews.
Mahd at first refused, saying he feared a fishing expedition. He
asked agents to explain why the additional demands were legally
In June, he complied and presented four years of tax records,
travel documents, employment data back to 1998 and more. He still
refused to be interviewed. This month, his application was denied.
Mahd has appealed that denial within Homeland Security’s
On Friday, Judge Miller said he wanted to see certified background
check results, not merely a declaration that the FBI check has been
If the background check involves matters of national security,
Miller said, he will review the documents in his office.
Mahd, as a self-represented noncitizen, would not be able to attend
“I’m confident the judge would evaluate this properly,” he said
Assistant U.S. Attorney Weishaupl told Miller she needed to have
his request for background-check documentation in writing.
“You will note, of course, the irony of you wanting something in
writing,” Miller said, assuring her it would be done in the
tradition of open government.
“I have no hesitation to put my orders in writing for all to
see,” he said.
IN LIMBO THREE YEARS
A blind computer expert who passed his citizenship test in ’04 recently won a suit forcing his background check’s completion.
The government began a last-ditch effort to deny citizenship for a
blind Palestinian computer whiz in Colorado who recently won a
lawsuit forcing the FBI to complete his long-stalled security
Homeland Security officials now have blocked Zuhair Mahd’s
three-year citizenship quest because he wouldn’t submit to
additional interviews after the FBI check was done, said Robert
Mather, Denver district director of U.S. Citizenship and
“We weren’t able to move forward with an approval process because
we didn’t have all the information we requested,” Mather said in
This denial escalates a standoff that already had spun out of the
immigration system into federal court – where judges nationwide
increasingly face cases of citizenship applicants who passed tests
but still aren’t approved.
U.S. District Judge Walker Miller in Denver last week ordered the
government to prove why Mahd “should not be immediately
naturalized.” A hearing is set for Aug. 31.
Federal judges rarely grant citizenship. But U.S. law says
immigrants who pass citizenship tests must have their cases handled
in 120 days. Otherwise, applicants can go to court and ask judges
Mahd, 33, who has been in the U.S. legally for 17 years, passed his
citizenship test in December 2004.
Born blind to Palestinian immigrants in Jordan, he came to the
country as a teenager with the help of U.S. officials. Today he
works for the University of Colorado helping a blind engineering
graduate student adapt.
He worked previously for IBM and on government contracts.
He said that he’s been forthcoming with immigration officials who
this year, long after their 120-day deadline, demanded that he
provide additional documents and submit to a videotaped interview.
At first, he refused but then in June complied and presented four
years’ worth of tax records, travel documents, employment data back
to 1998, and more. But he still refused to be interviewed,
according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and his
application was denied.
“They’re not entitled to the interview or the documents. The
documents were provided as a goodwill gesture,” Mahd said.
“They were going to deny (the application), no matter what I did
or didn’t do. All they are doing is buying time and splitting
hairs, and I don’t think that’s good for any of us.”
Miller on March 22 ordered the FBI to complete Mahd’s stalled
background check after Mahd filed a federal lawsuit on his own –
his first legal case.
This case set a regional precedent as the FBI grapples with a
growing backlog of 440,000 uncompleted background security checks,
which were instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to guard
Prosecutors on Tuesday asked Miller to cancel this month’s hearing,
arguing that the government has obeyed his order.
Mahd’s application “has been denied,” U.S. attorney spokesman
Jeff Dorschner said. “He needs to now go through the process of
appealing that denial” with immigration officials.
Mahd said he would prefer to rely on Judge Miller in federal court.
Government officials “have broken a law, and they’re acting in a
vindictive manner,” Mahd said.
Refugees from Myanmar, formerly barred from the U.S. for opposing the regime there, are settling in Denver. But they need help crossing a wide cultural gap.
Running shoeless and wading neck-deep through jungle rivers to
evade Myanmar’s military dictatorship enraged her.
But sitting in Denver’s jail for seven hours, hearing the sobs of a
cellmate and knowing only of a world where authorities torture and
kill prisoners, refugee Always Ways, 37, doubted that America would
“I just prayed I’d be released,” she said, speaking through an
Her detention – after police found her toddler son roaming as
village children do – illustrates the bewildering cross-cultural
challenge she and other tribal refugees from Myanmar face as they
adapt to an alien U.S. culture that revolves around technology and
After years of rejecting refugees from Myanmar out of concern they
supported terrorists, the U.S. government recently began resettling
thousands in cities nationwide – including about 200 in Denver.
This latest wave of newcomers who speak no English and need help
with everything from food stamps to riding buses has resettlement
agencies, on contract with the government, scrambling to meld the
traditional and modern. Denver is regarded as comfortable for
refugees based on experience with the Hmong, facilities such as the
Rocky Mountain Survivors Center and a robust economy.
Yet social workers here are hampered by a lack of interpreters who
speak Karen and other tribal languages.
Isolated from one another in scattered low-income housing, refugees
accustomed to cooking with charcoal and fetching water from streams
struggle with taps, electric stoves, and TV images of sex and
They’re told they can receive free food for 90 days, but wait for
weeks as caseworkers try to arrange these benefits. Job interviews
at hotels and casinos often stall on the language barrier. Doctors
facing refugees and their children often aren’t sure what they
One family fell deeply in debt after an auto dealer gave generous
financing for a fully loaded van. Children brace for
misunderstanding at schools. At one, teachers struggled just to
identify a girl awaiting class whom they wrongly assumed spoke
A father working in a foam factory was left brain-damaged after an
“My friend call me: ‘Help me! Help me!’ I go to the machine. The
machine hurt my head,” said Tar Pine, 51, now living in an Arvada
head-injury care facility with a dent in his skull.
Distraught to be raising three kids without him, Tar Pine’s wife,
Dah Doh Moo, 47, recently wrecked the family car. “I saw the red
light, but I didn’t remember to stop.”
Now she nurses a bruised chest, tries to counsel other refugees by
telephone and reminisces of her simpler days fighting Burmese
forces with a U.S.-made M-16 rifle as a member of the Karen National Liberation Army,
“We just protect our Karen people. Never do any terrorism. … We
want Americans to know we are not terror people.”
Her mother, Bheir, 87, waters backyard garden vegetables, telling
stories of “crying every day” in what is now Myanmar during World
War II, when she helped British soldiers fighting Japanese
“I’ve been in trouble my whole life. It got better here in
America,” she said. “But a lot of problems here, too.”
For two decades, ethnic minority refugees from Texas-sized Myanmar
(population 48 million) have been fleeing to escape abuse, forced
labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and death at the
hands of the nation’s Chinese-backed military regime. Myanmar is
the name adopted by the current government, which suspended the
nation’s constitution in 1988, though the U.S. government and the
Karen still refer to the nation as Burma.
Congress last week voted to extend economic sanctions against
Bending post-9/11 laws
Today, hundreds of thousands of Karen and other refugees languish
in crowded camps just across the Myanmar-Thailand border.
International resettlement efforts began in 2005.
But U.S. officials at first rejected these refugees because of
provisions in the post-9/11 USA Patriot and Real ID Acts that deny
resettlement to those who helped armed groups. Myanmar has charged
that the KLNA and another group, which have been battling for
independence for almost 60 years, are responsible for terrorist
acts, including a pair of bus bombings in June that killed 27
A year ago, U.S. officials waived the rules and agreed to resettle
up to 15,000 even if they did support armed groups.
“Few people are suggesting that terrorists might lurk” among
refugees from this region, said Paul Stein, state refugee
coordinator in Colorado.
U.S. security officials “have gone a little bit overboard because
the definition of ‘terrorist group’ is so broad,” said Rachel
O’Hara, director of refugee resettlement and employment for the
U.S. Committee for Refugees, an advocacy group.
U.S. officials “have said the government of Burma is committing
atrocities, and yet we term those who fight that government
terrorists? It just doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
Bridging cultural chasm
For Always Ways and her five children, one of them a disabled
8-year-old boy, just leaving her apartment is scary.
First she got shaken down in the hall by a big man for money.
Then one day, when she went to talk with other refugees, police
picked up her 3-year-old, Tah Paw Kwa. He’d left the apartment and
was exploring other buildings. The officer handed her a ticket with
a court date Ways couldn’t comprehend. Children wander constantly
in her home village and Thai camps. Why not in Denver?
When she failed to show up in court, police came to arrest her with
handcuffs. Ways panicked, collapsed and was taken to an emergency
room – then jail.
A resettlement caseworker and members of a newly formed Colorado
Burma Roundtable Network negotiated her release.
Ways now laughs at her misunderstanding, embarrassed. The arrival
of her mother and sister last month may free her to study English
at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School.
Such cases consume de facto community leader Rocky Martin, 47, a
Karen-speaking sushi chef who escaped Myanmar a decade ago. He
translates for refugees, warns them about credit cards, escorts
them to emergency rooms and arranges gatherings at a church where
the Karen hold Christian services in downtown Denver.
“In jungle, we scared. … We were raped, tortured and killed
because the government people hate the Karen people,” Martin
“In the jungle, they can kill the Karen people. But they cannot
kill the soul,” he said. “Here in the United States, good place
to live. But we have to take care of our spiritual welfare. We have
to fight for our soul.”
A standoff between a blind Palestinian computer whiz seeking
citizenship and the government intensified Thursday when Homeland
Security officials asked him to submit additional tax, employment,
passport and other documents before the FBI completes a background
Zuhair Mahd refused, calling it unjustified legal fishing.
A federal judge last week ruled that the government has violated
federal rules in handling Mahd’s case and ordered FBI and
immigration officials to complete the process.
“There’s been no transparency in this process, and that’s what
scares me,” Mahd said after meeting with an immigration agent.
“I want to be forthcoming. I have nothing to hide. But I get
suspicious,” said Mahd, who has lived in the country legally for
Federal officials said they have the right to investigate further.
Mahd’s case “certainly has been complicated” by his refusal to
submit more information, said Chris Bentley, spokesman for U.S.
Citizenship & Immigration Services, part of Homeland Security.
The order from U.S. District Judge Walker Miller gives the FBI 45
days to complete a background check and then 45 days for
immigration officials to make a decision.
Court records show Mahd passed an interview and written tests
required for citizenship in 2004. FBI agents later interviewed him
Federal law says immigrants who pass citizenship tests must be
granted citizenship in 120 days.
When Mahd’s quest for citizenship never moved forward, he finally
sued the government and won the order from Miller.
U.S. Attorney Troy Eid is weighing whether to appeal Miller’s
Ruling may speed up FBI security checks for local Palestinian and other aspiring citizens.
A blind Palestinian computer whiz in Denver fought the FBI and
Department of Homeland Security without a lawyer – and won. Now his
case may help force the FBI to expedite background checks on
U.S. District Judge Walker Miller has ordered the FBI to complete a
stalled background check within 45 days for Zuhair Mahd, 33, who
passed all U.S. citizenship tests in 2004 but still couldn’t get
Miller ruled that federal officials violated their own rules in
handling Mahd’s case. The order last week in Mahd’s self-filed
lawsuit set a regional precedent for dozens of similar lawsuits by
mostly Muslim citizenship applicants pending in federal court. It
adds to pressure from federal judges around the country who are
demanding that the FBI complete the security checks – instituted
after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to guard against terrorism – in a
timely manner. Court records show the FBI faces a growing backlog
of 440,000 uncompleted checks.
“I would hope I’ve inspired people to take their cases forward,
speak out, and realize they can trust the legal system and feel
vindicated,” Mahd said Wednesday at an apartment where he’s
staying in Aurora.
Immigrants often “don’t even know they can seek judicial relief”
when their applications are stalled, he said. Part of his
motivation was “wanting to be sure I’m not living an illusion in a
country that claims to be democratic but really isn’t.”
This was Mahd’s first legal case. Born totally blind to Palestinian
refugees in Jordan, Mahd endured poverty and rejection as a
teenager before finding a banker who, with the help of U.S.
officials, bought him a ticket to Boston. Mahd graduated from U.S.
schools, then pioneered Arabic text-to-speech software working for
IBM and as an independent contractor interested in government
FBI officials “respect the court’s ruling,” spokesman Paul
Bresson said from Washington. “We will continue to evaluate ways
to improve our ability to process these name checks in a more
Delays are caused by “the sheer volume of names submitted” by
multiple government agencies – about 3 million a year, Bresson
said. “Every name is processed thoroughly. We have never
sacrificed security in any way.”
FBI could appeal ruling
Today, Madh plans to ride the bus to a hearing with immigration
officials that was scheduled before he won his lawsuit. Mary
Mischke, acting Denver district director for U.S. Citizenship and
Immigration Services, part of Homeland Security, had asked him to
present more “evidence,” including tax records, travel documents
and a driver’s license.
Mahd said he’s hoping the judge’s order will mean his citizenship
now will be approved.
But immigration officials “can’t do anything until we get a clear
record from the FBI,” immigration spokeswoman Maria Elena
Garcia-Upson said. “We owe that to the American public.”
Immigration officials “are reviewing” Judge Miller’s order,
Garcia-Upson said, declining to comment further.
U.S. Attorney Troy Eid in Colorado, whose office defended the FBI
and Homeland Security against Mahd, is weighing whether to appeal,
his spokesman Jeff Dorschner said.
Federal law says immigrants who pass citizenship tests must be
granted citizenship in 120 days. That’s the law Mahd cited in the
legal case he prepared on his home computer.
Court records show immigration officials twice asked the FBI to
complete Mahd’s case.
The system clearly is broken, and federal court orders like the one
in Denver should force “an improvement in security,” said Crystal
Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers
“If there is something wrong with this guy, the judge has ordered
(FBI and immigration officials) to find out once and for all what
it is. If there isn’t anything wrong, then the FBI must clear him.
“Federal officials have let this build up, and it’s only going to
build up more if they don’t address it. The FBI needs more
resources to do these checks. And they need to focus them more.”
FBI SUED OVER DELAYS
Muslim immigrants often wait years for a background check to become Americans. But officials say they’re not being singled out.
Zuhair Mahd of Denver made all the right moves to become a U.S.
citizen after escaping poverty and rejection as a blind
Palestinian-refugee teenager in Jordan.
He found a banker to buy him a ticket to Boston. He excelled in
U.S. schools. He pioneered Arabic text-to-speech software and
worked for IBM, honing skills that recruiters for the CIA and other
agencies covet for the war on terrorism.
Then he applied for citizenship, passed the tests and waited for an
FBI background check.
And waited. And waited.
After waiting for two years, Mahd, 33, sued the FBI.
Now his case is pending in federal court along with hundreds of
other lawsuits nationwide by Muslims who made the grade to become
citizens but have been delayed while waiting for FBI checks for up
to five years.
Applicants for U.S. citizenship come from many nations and
cultures, but most of the lawsuits filed recently in Colorado
involve Muslim immigrants.
Federal law says immigrants who pass citizenship tests must be
granted citizenship in 120 days.
The lawsuits are getting results. An internal government memo
indicates suing can accelerate FBI action.
Yet the core problem is getting worse: a mounting FBI backlog of
unfinished background checks as the nation seeks greater protection
against terrorism. Today’s backlog tops 440,000.
FBI officials won’t say how many of those waiting for background
checks are Muslims but insist that the agency is not targeting any
“There is a backlog,” Special Agent Jeff Lanza said at FBI
headquarters in Washington. “We’re not using ‘backlog’ as a
euphemism for discriminating against Muslims.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government began
requiring FBI background checks on all immigrants poised to become
citizens, increasing the FBI’s workload to about
4 million checks a year. The checks are seen as essential to weed
Now these very delays are raising security concerns. People whose
names trigger computer “hits” against federal databases remain in
the country for years.
“If there are concerns about these people, why are we just letting
them sit here?” said Crystal Williams, deputy director of the
American Immigration Lawyers Association, a pro-immigration group
“This system isn’t working … and nobody’s taking responsibility,”
The delays also foster ill will – just as the U.S. government
launches a new campaign to persuade more eligible immigrants to
apply for citizenship. Record numbers choose not to apply.
“This is injurious in so many ways. You’re sitting here, singled
out, hanging, with no indication why it’s taking so long,”
Jordanian immigrant Mahd said last week during a defense industry
job fair in Colorado Springs.
There, a recruiter who initially was eager to hire him balked when
he learned Mahd still lacked the citizenship required for security
FBI agents twice visited him at home in Denver, he said, asking if
he’d be willing to work as an informant or monitor online chat
rooms for anything suspicious.
“I told them I’m not willing to fill in the blanks when I don’t
know the full story,” he said.
“Why the delay? What did I do?”
Hundreds of lawsuits against the FBI and Department of Homeland
Security are pending in federal courts nationwide, including
class-action cases in California, Illinois and New York, according
to judicial records and attorneys.
The lawsuits ask judges to order completion of background checks –
or waive the checks – so that citizenship is granted within 120
days as required.
In Colorado, 31 of the lawsuits have been filed this year. At least
10 cases recently were settled, with the FBI agreeing to expedite
checks, presumably encouraging more lawsuits. At least 21 cases by
26 plaintiffs are pending, and federal attorneys report a couple of
new lawsuits filed every week.
Colorado Muslim leaders warn that citizenship delays feed a
“If you want people to be good citizens, you have to make them
feel welcome, not discriminated against,” said Colorado Muslim
Society Imam Ammar Amonette at Denver’s Abu Bakr mosque.
Some of those delayed for citizenship have served the U.S. military
as translators in Iraq.
Training Iraq-bound U.S. soldiers at Fort Carson, Iraqi refugee
Sattar Khdir, 52, a father of two who needs citizenship to join the
soldiers in battle, said he feels “ashamed. I’m sitting, eating
with the TV, seeing U.S. troops getting killed helping my
Khdir begged FBI and immigration officials repeatedly for a year to
finish his case – “Why don’t you let me go?” – before hiring an
attorney this fall.
“This is extremely unfair,” said Denver lawyer Jihad Muhaisen,
whose firm has filed more than 15 lawsuits. Government lawyers
swiftly arranged expedited checks in each case settled so far,
Meanwhile, citizenship applications for non-Arab clients “go
through” without delay, he said. “If (Muslims) qualified for
citizenship, they should get citizenship.”
A Department of Homeland Security memo reveals that the FBI now
considers a “lawsuit pending in Federal Court” as grounds for
speeding up stalled background checks.
FBI agents say they’re working as fast as they can. Lawsuits won’t
intimidate anyone into doing sloppy work, said FBI Special Agent in
Charge Richard Powers in Denver. “We’re going to do it right,
because in some cases to make an error could be grievous. …
Certainly, security is an issue,” Powers said.
Suing the government “is an unfortunate way to try to resolve what
is a system that generally works at a very high capacity,” he
Frustrations in Denver reached the point last week that Muslim
community leaders, with Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman acting as
a bridge, visited FBI offices. Powers met with the delegation,
explaining how checks are done.
Computers at FBI headquarters cross-check names against multiple
databases. Some 62,000 names a week are sent electronically for
background checks. Nearly half are immigrants who have qualified
for citizenship; 85 percent of the checks are completed within
The problem: Names that trigger computer hits require agents to
ferret out data that may span the globe.
Demand to do more checks is growing. In 2001, the FBI faced
requests to conduct 2.8 million name checks. Last year, the
requests topped 3.3 million.
Federal officials say the backlog is growing as well.
Homeland Security officials recently began refusing to schedule
citizenship interviews and tests for anyone until FBI checks are
complete – an effort to reduce the government’s legal exposure.
Meanwhile, the government is struggling to reverse what Congress
and others have identified as a worrying trend: More than 7 million
immigrants eligible for citizenship haven’t applied.
The government just launched a $6.5 million “Americanization”
campaign to encourage more eligible immigrants to become citizens,
said Alfonso Aguilar, Homeland Security’s chief of citizenship.
“Until now, we’ve kind of taken assimilation for granted. The
truth is, we’ve come to the point that Congress and the
administration realize we need to strengthen our assimilation
efforts. If we don’t, we could have a problem” with lack of unity
in the future, Aguilar said.
“You cannot preserve a stable democracy if your people aren’t
united by common values.”
Meanwhile, government lawyers say they increasingly are diverted
from fighting crime to defending the FBI.
U.S. Attorney for Colorado Troy Eid estimated that for the amount
of time his staff has devoted this year to defending the FBI, it
could be “putting 50 or more bad guys behind bars.”
“This problem appears to be getting worse, not better. … One
obvious solution that could be considered would be to increase the
resources available to the FBI” for checks, he said. “These
background checks need to be done. How they get them done on time
is a public-policy issue that needs to be addressed.”
Pressuring the FBI
Civil-liberties advocates are demanding that the FBI set and meet
deadlines for background checks on immigrants poised to become U.S.
Otherwise, the post-9/11 system of having the FBI check names of
all applicants “means they can just keep people waiting for years
and years,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ranjana
“The question is: Are there legitimate reasons to delay so many
people? We think the answer is no. Somebody isn’t connecting the
dots here. And, if there are real security issues, we don’t want
the FBI to sit on those.”
A growing FBI backlog of unfinished checks, and a new immigration
policy of refusing to schedule citizenship tests until FBI checks
are done, is causing havoc and feeding discontent. Hundreds of
mostly Muslim immigrants who have been delayed for up to five years
allege unfair treatment.
“When a group is singled out, that’s contrary to our principles,”
said Lema Bashir, legal adviser for the Arab-American
Delayed immigrants also seek help from members of Congress,
including Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.
“Prompt and thorough background checks are essential for our
nation’s security,” Salazar said Friday. “But we must also
guarantee no one is being denied for the wrong reasons.”
To become a U.S. citizen, you must:
Live as a legal resident in the country for five years (three if
married to a U.S. citizen) with no absence of more than one year
and at least 30 months of total presence, including three months in
one state or district.
Be at least 18 and of good moral character, meaning not a criminal
or habitual drunkard or person who has refused to support
dependents or lied under oath.
Pass English-language and civics tests and an interview with a
Swear to support the Constitution and obey laws, renounce any
foreign allegiance, and bear arms or perform other government
services when required by law.
Give fingerprints for submission to the FBI.
Receive FBI clearance after a background check is completed.
Average wait time for all applicants: eight months after filing
Average number of immigrants who become citizens each year: 5,700
in Colorado; 604,000 nationwide.
Number of applications rejected a year: 108,000.
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of
Denver agent training Kenyan officers in forensics The U.S. views Africa with interest as a frontier for terrorism, but any military acts can stoke resentment.
Nairobi, Kenya – Nine thousand miles from his home in Denver, FBI Special Agent Carle Schlaff faced 60 top African detectives packed into a room in Nairobi as part of a new U.S. focus on Africa.
Schlaff’s mission: to work with these African counterparts on
forensics and cultivate them as security partners.
The U.S. government views Africa with renewed interest as a
frontier for terrorism where al-Qaeda and other Islamic radicals
hide. Africa also supplies a growing share of the oil Americans
consume – nearly a fifth.
Terrorists in Africa could affect U.S. interests and organize
attacks inside the United States, said William Bellamy, U.S.
ambassador to Kenya.
“We try to monitor as best we can” airport travelers to prevent
terrorists from entering America, he said. “But I would not
exclude the possibility that could occur. … It’s certainly
Kenyan police recently found anti-tank missiles – some U.S.-made – in a terrorism suspect’s apartment at Mombasa, Kenya.
The U.S. priority in Africa of combating global terrorism has led
President Bush to deploy military forces at a growing network of
bases from Algeria to Uganda – in a pattern Bush set after the
Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
About 1,600 U.S. soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors are posted
in Djibouti at a base called Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign
Legion outpost. It is the first large long-term deployment of U.S.
forces to Africa.
Bush also sent special forces soldiers to Mali, Chad and Niger for
exercises with local forces against radical Muslims.
And U.S. officials have delivered more than $152 million in weapons
to sub-Saharan Africa since 2001, up from $92 million during the
previous four years.
But the military approach stokes resentment. African leaders say
they’re more interested in fighting worsening poverty than serving
African authorities believe young men were willing to join
anti-U.S. groups “because they had no jobs,” said Nicholas
Kamwende, commander of the Kenyan National Police anti-terrorism unit.
“We think fighting poverty is one of our ways of fighting
terrorism,” he said.
Kamwende said the United States traditionally has used skillful
diplomacy and developmental aid to help Africa address water,
health care and economic needs.
Tensions are mounting. Kenyan courts recently acquitted several
terrorism suspects indicted in the United States, and Kenyan
lawmakers have refused to pass an anti-terrorism law.
U.S. State Department officials say savvy cops such as Schlaff, who
also has worked in Botswana and the Red Sea area, can be more
effective than soldiers in helping locals root out terrorists.
In a spartan conference hall in Nairobi, Schlaff wore a sport shirt
and slacks instead of the camouflage fatigues that mark most U.S.
He smiled the way he might over coffee back home as the African
detectives in coats and ties stood quiet. He handed out FBI pins,
patches, fingerprint kits and cameras. He showed photos of his
family in the Colorado mountains.
He told of his forensics work on the FBI team that investigated the
bombing of the USS Cole warship that killed 17 sailors. Schlaff
helped dredge the harbor off Yemen and found part of an outboard
motor that cracked the case.
The attentiveness of Kenyan police officers impressed him, Schlaff
“Their focus is street crime. We’re not suggesting a different
focus. We’re just trying to make them aware there could be a
terrorism matter involved.”
Now, Schlaff is back in the United States. But detectives he
coached are working in Eastleigh, a Somali-run ghetto on the
outskirts of Nairobi, trying to recruit sources, offering money for
They’ve discovered funds flowing from Somalia to Eastleigh for
construction of shopping malls. They’re investigating who might be
sinking roots or raising money in Kenya.
These efforts bore out Schlaff’s conclusions. Street-
level police when treated with respect “are genuinely interested
in working with us” against terrorism, he said.
“If you want to convince people Americans are not the aggressor, I
think you’ve got to do it by being there low on the ground.”