Immigrants file lawsuits over citizenship delays
For six years, Ali Al-Lati has worked with the military, teaching soldiers simple Iraqi words and commands, telling them about the cultural...
The Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho — For six years, Ali Al-Lati has worked with the military, teaching soldiers simple Iraqi words and commands, telling them about the cultural mores of his native land and offering advice on how to deal with the extreme weather they'll face in Iraq.
He's a frequent visitor at the U.S. Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., and has passed the background checks necessary to work for the Department of Defense contractor SMI Global Mission Support.
But to the FBI, the Iraqi refugee living in Boise is just one of many waiting years for his name to be cleared, a necessary step for U.S. citizenship.
Now, he's turning to the federal courts for help. He's one of dozens around the United States suing the government because the FBI has yet to complete a process called a name check.
"I came to this country because I want to live here. I work hard here. I love this country," said Al-Lati, who's learned English and passed the prerequisite citizenship test. He's even passed a background check by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"I've waited until now, when I am 35 years old. Am I going to have to wait for citizenship when I am 60 years old? I went to the courts because this is the only way to do it."
Both the FBI and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) acknowledge the delays are a problem. About 150,000 citizenship applications nationwide currently have a wait time longer than six months, said Maria Elena Upson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship Immigration Service in Dallas.
"It's unacceptable, frankly, to have to wait this long. The agency understands that," said Upson, who said the agency is trying to find ways to expedite the process. "But you have to understand that USCIS receives millions of applications a year. One percent gets hung up on additional name checks."
The FBI completes about 62,000 name checks every week, said Trent Pedersen, a spokesman with the bureau's Salt Lake City office, with close to 27,000 new requests coming from USCIS alone every week.
The initial name checks are done electronically: Names are entered into a database to see if the FBI has gathered any information on them in the past.
But even information on similar names yields results, or "hits," and each hit has to be investigated. Not all the information is stored electronically, either: There are paper files in many of the bureau's 265 offices nationwide.
Would-be citizens in several states have sued in the hope of speeding up the process.
Al-Lati filed his lawsuit in May, after waiting nearly five years for his name check to be completed. Both Al-Lati and his attorney maintain Al-Lati has a clean record. He keeps a handful of certificates of commendation from various military groups thanking him for his service.
"We don't know why it's taking so long," he said. "I asked, 'Did I do something wrong to make you hold my case?' They say no. I get depressed every time I am thinking about it."
Al-Lati frequently stops by the local USCIS office to check on his application status. He hopes that once he becomes a citizen, he can find work on a U.S. military base in Iraq, interpreting for the government and serving his new country.
He came to the United States about seven years ago.
In Iraq, Al-Lati said he risked execution when, at the age of 18, he refused to join Saddam Hussein's army and invade Kuwait. He was captured, shot and imprisoned, but freed six months later during the chaos of the first Gulf War.
After taking part in an unsuccessful uprising against Saddam Hussein, Al-Lati ended up in an American refugee camp for six years before coming to the United States.
His friend Ahmed Al-Fahdi has a similar story, fleeing to the refugee camps after his brother was executed for trying to attend school instead of joining the army.
Now living in Boise, Al-Fahdi has also sued over his several-year wait for an FBI name check. And now he is hoping more urgently than ever for a resolution: His wife, still in Iraq, is expecting their first child in two months.
"I've applied for her to get the green card, but it takes a long time," Al-Fahdi said. "She is crying all the time. She wants me there when she has the baby, but I don't know because I'm waiting for the lawyer and maybe I'm going to get my citizenship first."
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