Immigrants Sue Over Delays In Citizenship

Thursday, February 8th 2007, 8:57 pm
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Eight immigrants who have waited years for their citizenship applications to clear tougher post-9/11 background checks claim in a lawsuit filed Thursday that the delays violate their constitutional rights of due process.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and names the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security among the defendants. It seeks to enforce regulations in which the federal government must act on a citizenship application within 120 days of the applicant's interview.

The eight immigrants cleared traditional criminal background checks and other requirements only to see their applications bogged down by federal immigration officials' process of checking names against an FBI database, the plaintiffs' attorneys said.

``The system is broken, and it's time to fix it,'' said Maya Harris, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the eight immigrants. Also named as plaintiffs are the Asian Law Caucus and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter.

The name checks were adopted before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but only after the attacks did every application go through the process, said Christopher Bentley, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The majority of the 35 million background checks the agency runs every year are cleared within nine months, Bentley said. The others require more research and can take years, he said.

Calls to the FBI were not immediately returned.

Bentley defended the rigorous background checks as vital to national security.

``The American public expects that as an agency we won't grant a benefit such as citizenship to someone who is not qualified,'' he said. ``We will not and do not grant any benefits until all background security clearances have been resolved.''

One plaintiff, Sana Jalili of Pakistan, applied for citizenship in December 2003. She gave her fingerprints, passed a criminal background check and completed the final interview in September 2004.

Jalili, 26, said she was told she would be naturalized in three months, at most. She's waited almost three years with no conclusion.

``We are continuously told the same message, that my name has gone for a background check,'' she said. ``But how long does it take to complete a simple background check?''

Cecillia D. Wang, senior attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, said a faster approval process would improve national security.

``If there are lawful permanent residents who pose a security risk, the government should discover that quickly and get to the bottom of any possible problems,'' Wang said.

Three other lawsuits are pending around the country asking the government to act on citizenship applications within 120 days of the last interview.

Immigration officials now conduct name checks before interviews, following the letter of the law but violating applicants' due process rights, said Sin Yen Ling, staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus.

The suit asks for a time limit for name checks and a speedy review of the plaintiffs' own applications.