Monday, November 26, 2007

If you applied for U.S. Citizenship and thinking that you will vote in 2008. Keep waiting. It will take up to five years the Citizenship process. This is a country of laws. He filed suit in 2003, received a trial date of August 2003 and became a citizen before the court date arrived. His lawyer convinced the judge to make the government pay Sapir's nearly $4,000 in legal fees.

Citizenship delays lead immigrants to file suit. FBI background checks can take up to five years.

Lawsuits filed against the U.S. government by immigrants trying to live in the country permanently quadrupled in three years, the plaintiffs frustrated by years-long background checks and threat of deportation.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials say every application is treated equally, that only those for foreign adopted children and military personnel get expedited. But a document uncovered in a Nashville case lists the filing of a federal lawsuit as a reason to speed up the process, and plaintiffs report action within months of filing.

From October 2005 to September 2006, just over 4,000 immigrants filed suit against various divisions of the federal government involved with immigration, compared with about 1,000 in the same period two years earlier. Sixteen Nashville-area immigrants have filed suit so far this year, compared with one in 2006 and none in 2005.

Adnan Alkhafaji of Nashville filed his suit in June, almost a year after he took required citizenship tests and passed and three years after he first applied. Three months later, he received an appointment to take his oath of citizenship in December. But last week, Alkhafaji received another letter — the appointment had been canceled.

"There is no explanation," he said. "None at all."

Alkhafaji's situation is dire. The Iraq native arrived in the U.S. 10 years ago on a refugee visa and applied for disability benefits because he is missing part of his right hand, an injury sustained in the Iran-Iraq war.

Then, in 2004, the Social Security Administration discontinued his benefits because he failed to become a citizen within seven years of arriving. Under immigration law, he wasn't eligible to apply until that year.

Today, Alkhfaji depends on friends and government housing assistance to get by. He is waiting for the U.S. District Court in Nashville to set a trial date for his case.

"What I want, what I need is for this piece of the government to talk to the other," he said. "And for somebody to make a decision."

Several immigrants, their advocates and attorneys said the list of people waiting for decisions exhibits several obvious patterns.

"Most of the people, most but not all, tend to be male and from a predominantly Islamic country or a country with current or former communist ties," said Charla Haas, a Nashville immigration attorney who has several clients awaiting immigration-status decisions.

"There are more immigrants turning to the courts because the system, well, it has a lot of flaws, and people feel very strongly about becoming citizens," she said. "They want to be able to travel. They want to be able to vote. … And these days it means a lot to (immigrants) not to be perceived as foreigners."

Checks can take years

In several cases, courts have found that the government has an obligation to process permanent residency applications "within a reasonable period of time."

A federal law also requires a decision on citizenship applications within 120 days of the "examination." Plaintiffs say that's a reference to the required English and civics exams. The government contends that the examination includes the required FBI background check, which can take from 72 hours to nearly five years to complete.

The FBI receives on average more than 130,000 names a week from various government agencies that must be checked against its databases, said Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman. The majority come from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

About 85 percent of names checked by the FBI are cleared within 72 hours, he said.

In November 2002, the immigration agency asked the FBI to begin probing deeper into the backgrounds of applicants for visas, permanent residency and citizenship. The agency wanted to know when an applicant was a suspect in an FBI investigation, a victim, a witness, a friend or co-conspirator mentioned in an FBI file.

As of August, the FBI had a backlog of 455,815 names requiring rigorous review, Carter said.

"We understand the delays in the process are causing consternation for a number of people," said Carter. "At the same time, ... the FBI's priority remains to protect the United States from terrorist attack."

Ana Santiago, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said all applications are treated equally — only foreign-born adopted children and military personnel are expedited.

But a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services document included in a lawsuit filed this month by Nashville immigrant Yongquing Wang indicates that the FBI expedites name checks in a short list of situations, including those in which there is a pending federal lawsuit.

Santiago said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The document, dated 2005, labeled "notice" and printed on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services letterhead, reads: "In order for USCIS to expedite an FBI Name Check request, one of the following criteria must be established: … Writ of Mandamus — lawsuit pending in Federal Court."

Wang, who could not be reached for comment, has waited two years for a decision because of name check delays, according to his lawsuit. Wang immigrated to the United States from China six years ago.

VU prof filed lawsuit

Mark Sapir, a mathematics professor at Vanderbilt University, was the first immigrant to file suit against the newly formed U.S. Department of Homeland Security over immigration delays.

In 1991, Sapir, his wife and daughter immigrated to the United States from Russia. Ten years later, Sapir and his wife were summoned to take the required tests to become citizens.

They passed. So did the 120 days, then two years.

Sapir called the agency, then known as Immigration and Naturalization Services, and wrote the area's congressional representatives to try to get his case expedited.

"I even went to Memphis a couple of times," said Sapir, to the INS offices. "…When you get to the front of the line, there are just two very rude clerks who are not professional, who cannot answer your questions.

"These people, they treat citizenship like it is just a piece of paper."

Sapir filed suit in 2003, received a trial date of August 2003 and became a citizen before the court date arrived. His lawyer convinced the judge to make the government pay Sapir's nearly $4,000 in legal fees.

"This is a country of laws," Sapir said. "And to me immigration ought to be this orderly, this logical thing. So I was not afraid of them. Maybe I should have been, but I had no reason to be. … They are not inherently bad. It's not like they are KGB or something

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