[Immigrantrightsnynj] After the War, a New Battle to Become Citizens
Immigrant Rights NYNJ
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Sun Feb 24 15:13:55 EST 2008
February 24, 2008
After the War, a New Battle to Become Citizens
By FERNANDA SANTOS <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/fernanda_santos/index.html?inline=nyt-per>
Despite a 2002 promise from President Bush to put citizenship applications for immigrant members of the military on a fast track, some are finding themselves waiting months, or even years, because of bureaucratic backlogs. One, Sgt. Kendell K. Frederick of the Army, who had tried three times to file for citizenship, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq as he returned from submitting fingerprints for his application.
About 7,200 service members or people who have been recently discharged have citizenship applications pending, but neither the Department of Defense nor Citizenship and Immigration Services keeps track of how long they have been waiting. Immigration <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/i/immigration_and_refugees/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> lawyers and politicians say they have received a significant number of complaints about delays because of background checks, misplaced paperwork, confusion about deployments and other problems.
"I've pretty much given up on finding out where my paperwork is, what's gone wrong, what happened to it," said Abdool Habibullah, 27, a Guyanese immigrant who first applied for citizenship in 2005 upon returning from a tour in Iraq and was honorably discharged from the Marines as a sergeant. "If what I've done for this country isn't enough for me to be a citizen, then I don't know what is."
The long waits are part of a broader problem plaguing the immigration service, which was flooded with 2.5 million applications for citizenship and visas last summer - twice as many as the previous year - in the face of 66 percent fee increases that took effect July 30. Officials have estimated that it will take an average of 18 months to process citizenship applications from legal immigrants through 2010, up from seven months last year.
But service members and veterans are supposed to go to the head of the line. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush signed an executive order allowing noncitizens on active duty to file for citizenship right away, instead of having to first complete three years in the military. The federal government has since taken several steps to speed up the process, including training military officers to help service members fill out forms, assigning special teams to handle the paperwork, and allowing citizenship tests, interviews and ceremonies to take place overseas.
At the same time, post-9/11 security measures, including tougher guidelines for background checks that are part of the naturalization process, have slowed things down.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/f/federal_bureau_of_investigation/index.html?inline=nyt-org> , which checks the names of citizenship applicants against those in its more than 86 million investigative files, has been overwhelmed, handling an average of 90,000 name-check requests a week. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the F.B.I. was asked to check 4.1 million names, at least half of them for citizenship and green card applicants, a spokesman said.
"Most soldiers clear the checks within 30 to 60 days, or 60 to 90 days," said Leslie B. Lord, the Army's liaison to Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes citizenship applications. "But even the soldier with the cleanest of records, if he has a name that's very similar to one that's in the F.B.I. bad-boy and bad-girl list, things get delayed."
Such explanations are why Mr. Habibullah has decided that once he does become a citizen - if he ever becomes a citizen - he will change his name.
"I figured that's part of the reason things got delayed," he said. "You know, that I have a Muslim name."
Thousands of Muslim civilians have also found themselves waiting months or years for background checks, and have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Denver. But advocates for the immigrant service members said that those with pending applications are from a variety of backgrounds and that they do not suspect a pattern of discrimination against Muslims.
Some 31,200 members of the military were sworn in as citizens between October 2002 and December 2007, according to the immigration service, but a spokeswoman, Chris Rhatigan, said she could not determine how long it took for them to be naturalized since the agency does not maintain a database tracking military cases.
Over all, 312,000 citizenship or green card applications are pending name checks, including 140,000 that have been waiting more than six months, immigration officials said. This month, immigration authorities eased background-check requirements for green cards, saying that if applicants had been waiting more than six months, they could be approved without an F.B.I. check, and approvals could be revoked later "in the unlikely event" that troubling information was found.
After hearing complaints from at least half a dozen service members over the past three months, Senator Charles E. Schumer <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/charles_e_schumer/index.html?inline=nyt-per> of New York has drafted a bill to create a special clearinghouse to ensure that applications from active and returning members of the military are processed quickly and smoothly. A spokesman said several other lawmakers reported hearing many similar stories.
"These are men and women who are risking their lives for us," Mr. Schumer said in a telephone interview. "They've met all the requirements for citizenship, they have certainly proved their commitment to our country, and yet they could lose their lives while waiting for a bureaucratic snafu to untangle."
In interviews, immigration lawyers and military officials said that in general, the naturalization process takes service members between six months and a year, which is about half the current average wait for civilians. But some cases drag on much longer because of background-check delays or because applications are misplaced, or notices are mailed to stateside addresses after an applicant has been deployed, causing appointments to be missed.
"You try to resolve these things amicably, reaching out to the military, reaching out to immigration officials, but you hit roadblock after roadblock," said David E. Piver, a Pennsylvania lawyer who filed at least six petitions in federal court over the past five years on behalf of service members experiencing longer than usual delays on their citizenship applications.
"It's usually not any substantive issue that's causing those delays," he said. "What it boils down to are bureaucratic snafus."
Feyad Mohammed, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who lives with his parents in Richmond Hill, Queens, was naturalized last month - four years after he filed the first of four citizenship applications, and six months after his honorable discharge from the Army as a sergeant.
Mr. Mohammed first applied in 2004, after he returned from the first of his two tours in Iraq. But the application seemed to have been lost; when he checked after a few months, he said, no one at the immigration service could tell him where it was or even if it had been received. He filed again in 2005, but missed his interview several months later; it had been scheduled in Iraq, during his second combat tour, but he was home on leave on the appointed day.
After he was discharged in July 2007, Mr. Mohammed filed another application. The paperwork was returned because he had not included a check covering the processing fee, he said, ignoring a Bush administration initiative that exempts combat veterans from application fees for up to a year after discharge. It was then that Mr. Mohammed reached out to Senator Schumer's office, which helped him file a fourth, and final, time.
When he was sworn in Jan. 25 at the federal courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn, Mr. Mohammed said, he felt "relieved."
"I was a citizen," he said. "I could finally move on with my life."
But Sergeant Frederick, a 21-year-old immigrant from Trinidad, would be awarded citizenship only posthumously, on the day of his burial. He is one of more than 90 immigrant service members to be naturalized after losing their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Sergeant Frederick's mother, Michelle Murphy, said that he had filed his citizenship application a year before he was deployed to Iraq in 2005, but that his application was sent back to her Maryland home three times - once because of incomplete biographical information, again because he had left a box unchecked, and once more because he had not paid the fee.
Finally, Ms. Murphy said, Sergeant Frederick received a letter saying that the fingerprints he had included with his application could not be read and that he needed to submit new ones. She contacted immigration officials, who arranged for him to submit a new set of fingerprints on Oct. 19, 2005, near his base in Tikrit. On the way back from the appointment, his convoy hit a roadside bomb.
"If somebody is fighting for a country, if he's deployed, if he's in the middle of a war, it shouldn't be that hard for them to become a citizen," Ms. Murphy, 42, said in a telephone interview.
After his death, the immigration service began accepting enlistment fingerprints with service members' citizenship applications, provided applicants authorized the military to share their files with immigration officials. A bill to make such sharing automatic has been passed by the House and is pending a final Senate vote.
In the meantime, Mr. Habibullah is working as an aircraft hydraulics mechanic in Connecticut, though he hopes to get a better-paying job in the federal government once he is naturalized. In October, Mr. Habibullah's father and grandmother became citizens in separate ceremonies, though they applied fully two years after he did.
Mr. Habibullah has passed the citizenship test and been interviewed, and he said he does not know what to do to move his application through the backlog faster.
"Every time I ask about it, I get the same answer: it's pending the background check," Mr. Habibullah said as he looked over his military medals, which are displayed on a wall in the Mount Vernon, N.Y., apartment he shares with his wife and 1-month-old son. "I'm at the point right now that I've almost given up on it."
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