Quest to be Citizen Slows


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
particular group.

“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
out terrorists.

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
in Washington.

“This system isn’t working … and nobody’s taking responsibility,”
Williams said.

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
deepening discontent.

“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,
Muhaisen said.

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
three days.

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
Nataranjan said.

“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
Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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
federal adjudicator.

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
Homeland Security