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On June 8, 2005, Haider Al-Ashwan marched into the Robert A. Young Federal Building in downtown St. Louis for an interview with the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. An Iraqi by birth, Al-Ashwan fled Saddam Hussein's brutal rule in 1991 during the tumult that followed Operation Desert Storm. He soon landed in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp before being granted entry to the United States as a resident alien in 1997.
Eight years later, Al-Ashwan wanted to become a citizen. The 36-year-old from the southern Iraqi city of Basra aced the English test. He studied hard and scored 100 percent on the U.S. history and government test. Now, a year and half later, Al Ashwan is still waiting to be naturalized.
"They were very delayed. I [went] over there like one million times to the immigration [office]. I'd ask them about my case and they wouldn't give me an answer. They just looked at me like I was guilty," says Al-Ashwan, a St. Louis resident who works as a cook at Kebab House on South Kingshighway. "I have no criminal record. I pay taxes. I work. I'm very straight. But they say they're still doing a background check."
When letter-writing and trips to the immigration office failed to bear fruit, Al-Ashwan hired an attorney and joined what many lawyers say are the swelling ranks of immigrants who are suing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with the hope of expediting their naturalization proceedings.
"The problem we're facing now is the background checks that are mandated by the Department of Homeland Security," says Timothy Wichmer, the St. Louis attorney representing Al-Ashwan in his case against the USCIS. "It may be laudable that they're doing rigorous background checks, but the law still requires them to decide these cases within a reasonable amount of time.
"Instead of them clearing the background check within a reasonable amount of time, they're taking an unreasonable amount of time. Many times you have to go to court to force them to decide the case."
One such case was recently filed in St. Louis federal court on behalf of 50 Bosnian immigrants. Although each of the plaintiffs had been assured by the USCIS that their naturalization proceedings were imminent, some waited two years with no news from the agency.
"For some of our clients, if they have a disability or are over 65, if the government delays too long they may lose their Supplemental Security Income their disability," explains Ann Lever, an attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and part of the legal team handling the case. "To many of these people, that's likely to be their only source of income. What has been our experience is that the person goes for the interview and may pass and then is told, 'We can't approve your application because we're waiting on the name-check.' They're not supposed to schedule those exams until after the background check has come back negative."
After a flurry of court filings, the government has asked for a continuance. All 50 Bosnians were naturalized on December 29.
Once an applicant passes the English and U.S. history and government tests, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has 120 days to adjudicate the applicant's case, says Chris Rhatigan, an agency spokeswoman. Rhatigan acknowledges that her agency has experienced severe delays in recent years but maintains that it has no control over how long a background check takes.
"We reduced our backlog in October of 2006. The backlog consisted of a number of cases that were delayed because of background security checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation," explains Rhatigan. "Somebody may have a name that's being looked into, or that may be similar to a name that's being looked into. Those are all things that are outside our area. We can't influence those in any way, shape or form."
Rhatigan adds that the situation is improving.
"The average wait time [between applicants successfully passing the tests and becoming naturalized] is down to five months from a high of fourteen months in February of 2004. So that's a significant drop," says Rhatigan, who estimates that her agency is processing roughly 375,000 pending applications. "Our goal is to get the entire adjudication process down to six months."
But six months is still too long for the likes of Wichmer.
"There's no wiggle room," the attorney says. "The law says they have to decide in 120 days it doesn't say they have to decide in 120 days unless the background check hasn't cleared.
"I don't have a problem with them doing a rigorous background check on people who want to become citizens, but it has to be reasonable," Wichmer adds. "Otherwise you're essentially depriving them of the due process of law to which they're entitled. If the law says you have to decide in 120 days, you don't get to arbitrarily decide you're not going to follow the law."