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A victory for Southern California citizenship applicants

Hundreds of legal immigrants whose cases have been languishing for years will get resolution within six months because of a settlement with the U.S. government.

November 10, 2009|Anna Gorman

Hundreds of legal immigrants in Southern California who have been waiting years for citizenship will have their cases resolved as a result of a settlement with the federal government, attorneys announced Monday.

The immigrants were stuck in lengthy delays as they waited for the FBI to complete their security name-checks and for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to approve their citizenship applications. The settlement, approved Friday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, sets a six-month deadline for the government to decide on hundreds of citizenship applications from Los Angeles and surrounding counties. The settlement also ends indefinite name-check delays in processing naturalization applications, according to the plaintiffs.

"The naturalization process has been a bureaucratic nightmare for so many permanent residents who did everything right to become citizens of this country," Jennie Pasquarella, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said Monday in a statement. "This restores the dream of citizenship and ensures that the government will be held accountable."

Although other problems with delays remain, the settlement will help speed the process for many, said Linton Joaquin, general counsel for the National Immigration Law Center.

"We're extremely pleased," he said. "This litigation addressed a massive problem that caused hardship for tens of thousands of applicants."

The plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center, filed the suit in 2007 and argued that because of the delays, legal permanent residents lost jobs and were prevented from voting and from beginning the process to bring in family members.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Mariana Gitomer said the settlement would affect approximately 500 citizenship applicants.

"The settlement is a good result for both the government and for applicants applying for naturalization," Gitomer said Monday.

Sonali Kolhatkar, one of the plaintiffs, came to the United States on a student visa in 1991 and got married 10 years ago. The United Arab Emirates-born journalist filed for citizenship in 2005, but then years passed with no word on her case, despite her persistent efforts to find out what was causing the delay.

"It just came to a complete standstill," said Kolhatkar, 34, a radio host with KPFK-FM (90.7) in Los Angeles. Kolhatkar said the delay prevented her from voting in the last presidential election and affected her work.

As a result of the lawsuit, Kolhatkar said, she became a citizen in March. On Monday, she said she was relieved for other immigrants, whose applications will no longer be sent into a black hole.

"It's about time," she said. "This is absolutely thrilling."

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anna.gorman@latimes.com

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