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Wrong name, a long wait?

FBI is still clearing Utah Muslims for citizenship

Published: Monday, Nov. 13 2006 1:40 a.m. MST

If Abdullah Hassan were a U.S. citizen, he says he'd have likely voted for the GOP in Tuesday's election.

"I like Republicans because they removed Saddam from power," said Hassan, a Kurdish asylee from Iraq.

However, more than a year after he's met all the requirements for citizenship, Hassan is still waiting to be naturalized.

Hassan completed his citizenship interview Aug. 12, 2005, and that's normally the last step before naturalization.

However, Hassan's name apparently hasn't been cleared from an FBI name list, which is part of the background check for citizenship applicants.

A person may be singled out if his name has surfaced in an investigation, either as a target of the investigation, associate or witness, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said.

Fewer than 1 percent of the names submitted take longer to clear than the normal six-month processing time between a citizenship application and interview, said Sharon Rummery, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"We regret people have to wait, but the American public demands a thorough background check," Rummery said. "That's what the FBI does."

However, Margaret Plane of the ACLU of Utah said it seems inconsistent with security concerns to take years to determine whether or not a person is a security risk.

"It's such a wide net, it's certainly catching a lot of people," she said. "It does seem a disproportionate number of people have Muslim-sounding names."

Federal law allows those who don't receive an answer within 120 days after completing a citizenship interview to take their cases to court to seek resolution either in favor of or against their application.

Class-action lawsuits representing those who have waited longer are popping up in other states, and in Utah some individual cases are being filed.

Attorney Sean Foster has recently filed cases for six clients, all originally from Iraq. Two clients have since been naturalized, and a third is scheduled for a Dec. 1 ceremony.

"My clients have waited 2, 3, 4 years," he said. "They have relatives at home. They've jumped through all the hoops, and the government has dropped the ball."

Catholic Community Services is also working with about 20 applicants, mostly men from Muslim countries, said Aden Batar, director of refugee resettlement and immigration.

"They are still waiting for the FBI name check," Batar said. "That's very much what's holding up these cases. ... The FBI needs to speed up the process."

Some of the cases across the nation include:

• The New York Legal Assistance Group has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Russian-speaking refugees and immigrants, some of whom face losing federal benefits unless they're naturalized.

• The Council on American-Islamic Relations' Chicago's Citizenship Delay Project is helping Muslim immigrants individually and also is pursuing a class-action lawsuit.

Bresson said there are a number of reasons why some names can take more than six months to process, such as records that are several years old or that were submitted by a small-town police department.

"It's quite an undertaking to then go back and resolve the reason why that record was in there," he said. "Whether or not it's something we should be concerned with."

He added that the FBI received 2 million names when the list was created in December 2002.

"We've been processing them in huge volumes ever since," he said. "Last year we processed more than 3.7 million requests, and 85 percent of the time we complete those having no records within 72 hours.

"The bottom line is, there is a huge volume of requests we receive," he said. "There is a backlog, and a very small percentage of those cases that takes some amount of time to complete."

But for Hassan and about a half-dozen other Kurdish men gathered outside the Khadeeja Mosque in West Valley City, the wait doesn't make sense.

One man, who asked not to be identified, questioned why his mentally disabled sister is on the security list. Another, Sindy Soud, has been waiting more than two years since his February 2004 citizenship interview to find out if he can become a U.S. citizen.

"You don't feel good if you are waiting for something," he said. "We want to be citizens for elections, we want to be a different person, part of the United States."


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com

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