Tired of delays, applicants for US citizenship sue government
Issameldin Mohamed, a native of Egypt, explained that he was not entirely sure that suing the US government was a good idea.
In Egypt, 'if you sue the government, there's something wrong here', he said, pointing to his head to indicate how foolhardy it would be.
But Mr Mohamed, 45, of Owings Mills, Maryland, was out of patience, having waited the better part of 10 years to obtain US citizenship. He had passed his citizenship test in 2005, and was waiting only for his name to be cleared in a government background check.
Finally, after filing a lawsuit in October at US District Court in Baltimore that named Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, FBI Director Robert Mueller and other top government officials as defendants, his naturalisation application was approved. On December 14, he became a citizen.
Mr Mohamed and an increasing number of US immigrants have decided to sue in federal court to force the government to take action on their citizenship applications.
The lawsuits cite federal law requiring agencies to act on a petition within 120 days after it has been reviewed. Rarely do the lawsuits go before a judge, according to a review of court records. Usually, the plaintiff agrees to drop the case after receiving assurances that it will be resolved quickly and favourably.
Morris Days, a lawyer with the Maryland-Virginia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has helped Mr Mohamed and 15 others file similar petitions at federal courthouses in the region in recent months.
Mr Days said six had already received citizenship papers or were about to, and he was optimistic all the applications would be approved.
The holdup invariably is the name check, Mr Days said. Muslims are particularly vulnerable to delays, he said, because names of innocent immigrants get confused with those on terror watch lists.
The delays cause real harm for people, he said. Certain jobs are off limits to non-citizens, adopting a child can prove difficult, and people are often separated from their families. Delays of two, three or four years are not uncommon, he said.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency responsible for processing citizenship applications, has acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of applicants have experienced unacceptable delays because of backlogs in background checks by the FBI.
USCIS spokesman Chris Bentley said 90 per cent of the background checks were completed within six months, but that still left a current backlog of 150,000 cases that have been pending six months or longer.
Mr Days said he was confident that the lawsuits were the only thing that jarred USCIS into action on behalf of his clients.
'If you file the suit and do the right things, they will relent,' he said.
The USCIS fee for applying for permanent residency varies
The standard tariff (in US dollars) for a single adult is $930