33 Muslim immigrants sue, saying U.S. citizenship wrongly delayed

Friday, June 6, 2008 | 4:20 p.m. CDT; updated 11:44 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS — A lawsuit says many immigrants who have met the requirements to become U.S. citizens are left in limbo for months or years because of slow processing of FBI name checks.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed Friday in federal court in St. Louis and says some immigrants have had to wait more than four years to be cleared by the FBI. It says the delays violate time limits set by law aimed at reducing naturalization backlogs.

By law, a decision on processing must be made within 120 days of the immigrant’s interview, the last step in becoming a citizen, attorney Jim Hacking said.

The suit was filed on behalf of 33 Muslim plaintiffs in Missouri who have settled here from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia and other countries. It seeks to have a federal judge enforce the time limits on name checks for those being naturalized.

The lawsuit names Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Jonathan Scharfen, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, among others.

The FBI conducts the checks. The USCIS oversees the naturalization process.

The delays prevent the citizen candidates from voting and traveling abroad for fear they will be harassed upon return by customs officials, said Kamal Yassin, who heads the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Department of Justice spokesman Charles Miller said the agency would review the complaint and determine how to respond in court.

Spokesman Paul Bresson said the FBI gets 4 million name check requests a year, half of which come from the naturalization agency, USCIS. He said the FBI has eliminated cases pending for four years or more. He said about 85 percent of cases are completed in 60 days.

“It boils down to volume versus resource,” he said. “We have not had enough resources to address it.”

The FBI increased fees to allow the agency to hire more record-checkers. A new central records complex under construction also should help, he said.

“Before 9-11, we were not required to do background checks,” said Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“We have piled a lot of work on the FBI, but we’re not going to naturalize someone without knowing they have cleared the background checks.”

The FBI does name, fingerprint and background checks for every applicant for naturalization. The agency said similar names can result in false hits that take time to resolve.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service said it no longer schedules interviews with immigrants until they’re cleared by the FBI.

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