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Caught in a black hole of red tape

FBI's citizenship checks can take years, raising fears over terrorists

September 10, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to become a U.S. citizen, Biljana Petrovic filed her application, completed her interview and passed her civics test.

More than three years later, she is still waiting to be naturalized -- held up by an FBI name-check process that has been criticized as slow, inefficient and a danger to national security.

Petrovic, a stay-at-home mother in Los Altos, Calif., who has no criminal record, has sued the federal government to try to speed up the process. She said it's as if her application has slipped into a "black hole."

"It's complete frustration," said Petrovic, who is originally from the former Yugoslavia and is a naturalized Canadian citizen. "It's not like I am applying to enter the country. I have been here for 19 years."

Nearly 320,000 people were waiting for their name checks to be completed as of Aug. 7, including more than 152,000 who had been waiting for more than six months, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. More than 61,000 had been waiting for more than two years.

Applicants for permanent residency or citizenship have lost jobs, missed out on student loans and in-state tuition, and been unable to vote or bring relatives into the country. The delays have prompted scores of lawsuits around the country.

Already this fiscal year, more than 4,100 suits have been filed against the citizenship and immigration agency, compared with 2,650 last year and about 680 in 2005. The mandamus suits ask federal judges to compel immigration officials to adjudicate the cases. The majority of the cases were prompted by delays in checking names, spokesman Chris Bentley said.

"There is nothing in immigration law that says that a citizenship application should take two, three, four years. That's absurd," said Ranjana Natarajan, an ACLU staff attorney who filed a class-action lawsuit in Southern California last year on behalf of applicants waiting for their names to be checked. "People who have not been any sort of threat . . . have been caught up in this dragnet."

In addition to the bureaucratic nightmare that the lengthy delays present, attorneys and government officials say there is a far more serious concern: They could be allowing potential terrorists to stay in the country.

Fallout from 9/11

The backlog began after 9/11, when Citizenship and Immigration Services officials reassessed their procedures and learned that the FBI checks were not as thorough as they had believed. So "out of an abundance of caution," the agency resubmitted 2.7 million names in 2002 to be checked further, Bentley said.

Rather than simply determining if the applicants were subjects of FBI investigations, the bureau checked to see if their names showed up in any FBI files, including being listed as witnesses or victims. About 90% of the names did not appear in the agency's records, FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.

But for the 10% who were listed, authorities carefully reviewed the files to look for any "derogatory" information, Carter said. Because many documents aren't electronic and are in the bureau's 265 offices nationwide, that process can take months, if not years.

"It is not a check of your name," said Chuck Roth, director of litigation for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, which also filed a class-action suit. "It is a file review of anywhere your name happens to appear. It has just created a giant bureaucratic mess."

Although many of those stuck in the backlog are from predominantly Muslim countries, there are also people from Russia, China, India and elsewhere. They include government employees and Iraq war veterans. Many have been in the U.S. legally for decades.

In one case decided in Washington, D.C., recently, a federal judge wrote that a Chinese man's four-year wait for permanent residency was unreasonable and ordered the government to decide on the application within three months. Petrovic, who has two U.S.-born teenagers, doesn't know what delayed her application. The only explanation she can think of is that her name is common in her native country.

She and her husband, Ihab Abu-Hakima, also a Canadian citizen, applied for citizenship in April 2003 and had their interviews in February 2004. Her husband was sworn in that summer, while her application continued to languish. She checked the mail daily.

When she still didn't hear anything, Petrovic contacted immigration officials, who told her that the FBI had her file and that it was still active. She also contacted her representative and her senator, whose offices asked Citizenship and Immigration Services to expedite the application. She filed a Freedom of Information Act request for her FBI file, which simply showed that she had never been arrested.

"I have a feeling that the system has broken down," she said.

Joining a different group

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