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Tuesday, August 12, 2008 - Page updated at 05:05 PM

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Settlement reached in case of citizenship delays

Hundreds of Western Washington immigrants are expected to gain their citizenship in time to vote this November, after the federal government agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over naturalization delays.

AP Legal Affairs Writer

SEATTLE —

Hundreds of Western Washington immigrants are expected to gain their citizenship in time to vote this November, after the federal government agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over naturalization delays.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued the Department of Homeland Security last October on behalf of immigrants who faced delays of months or years in their citizenship applications. Such applications are supposed to be processed within 120 days of a naturalization interview, the groups said, but many languished while the FBI conducted "name checks" on the immigrants to see if it had collected information about them in the past.

The seven named plaintiffs have already been naturalized, along with 72 others, said Sarah Dunne, legal director for the state ACLU chapter. According to the preliminary settlement announced Tuesday, Homeland Security will rule on about 350 other applications of people living in Western Washington by mid-October so that, if approved, those immigrants will be able to register to vote.

"They're ecstatic," Dunne said. "They get to be officially a part of a country they have wanted to become a citizen of for years."

The preliminary settlement agreement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle. Federal officials admitted no wrongdoing as part of the agreement, but the government agreed to pay $185,000 for the plaintiffs' legal fees.

Many of the class members are from the Middle East. Vafa Ghazi-Moghaddam, an Iranian-born electrical engineer who came to the U.S. on a student visa in 1991, applied for citizenship more than four years ago and was finally naturalized in June, shortly after Pechman granted the plaintiffs class-action status.

"I wanted to become a citizen because this is the country I live in, and I want to be a full member of this country," he said. "I'm someone who believes that living in a democracy, everyone needs to be involved in the democratic process. As a legal permanent resident, I have these opinions, and I can say I'm interested in this and this and this, but I can't vote. You've got to do the voting for me."

As a citizen, he can also sponsor his 73-year-old father to come to the U.S. from Tehran, he said.

Similar lawsuits have been filed around the country. In July, a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York approved a settlement in which Homeland Security agreed to process 1,400 citizenship applications in time for the November elections.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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