Chicago Tribune: More Muslims cite racism in seeking U.S. citizenship

Delays in the citizenship process caused a spike in civil rights complaints by Muslims in Illinois last year, a civil liberties group reported Tuesday.

The Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations received 412 reports of discrimination last year, ranking Illinois second in the U.S. in number of complaints filed. The number of complaints was up from 250 reported in 2005, according to a report released by the council.

Two-thirds of the Illinois incidents dealt with government agencies and immigration issues, the report found.

Muslim-Americans applying for citizenship often face discrimination because their background checks are not processed as quickly as those of other applicants, said CAIR-Chicago Executive Director Ahmed Rehab. Some people have waited years beyond the 120 days the process is supposed to take, he said.

“It’s very frustrating for them and their families,” Rehab said. “They’ve done everything, and they’re just waiting.”

While acknowledging delays in background checks, Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, denied it has anything to do with the applicants’ religion.

The agency has had problems with compound names and different alphabets, but those issues can occur with people from all nationalities, she said.

“It has nothing to do with someone’s nationality or where they’re from,” she said.

The CAIR report, titled “Presumption of Guilt,” found that civil rights complaints by Muslim-Americans increased across the country last year by 25 percent. The figures have been rising steadily since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, from about 350 incidents in 2000 to almost 2,500 last year, according to the report.

The organization tracks the incidents through calls and complaints filed on its Web site.

“I think most Muslim-Americans have themselves suffered from some sort of discrimination or know someone who has,” said Christina Abraham, the Chicago chapter’s civil rights coordinator.

Local complainants cited police brutality, racial epithets in the workplace and employers who asked women not to wear religious head scarves, Abraham said. But most encountered citizenship delays.

The Chicago chapter started a program last year to track complaints and filed a class-action lawsuit in 2005 seeking to speed background checks.

Reports may also be high because CAIR is so well-known among Chicago’s 400,000-plus Muslims, Rehab said.

Tariq Saeed, 47, a computer consultant, contacted CAIR and became a part of the lawsuit after waiting almost three years for his background check to be completed. The Pakistani immigrant said he wanted to become a voting citizen and couldn’t understand why the final step was taking so long.

“All my documents are clear, and I have never done anything illegal in my life except maybe a speeding ticket,” he said.

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