Daily Herald: Muslims fighting citizenship delays may have ray of hope

After 12 years living, studying, and working legally in the United States, Sheeraz Iqbal sought to trade in his Pakistani citizenship and swear allegiance to America for good.

Iqbal applied for his U.S. citizenship, and has been waiting two years for his application to move through a bureaucratic immigration system bogged down by a surge of immigrant petitions and added scrutiny post-Sept. 11, 2001.

The Elgin man said he asked immigration authorities about expediting his case because he wants to sponsor his elderly parents in Pakistan for citizenship. He awaits a date for his final immigration interview.

“It’s very frustrating,” said the 32-year-old senior financial consultant for a Chicago firm. “I really want to sponsor my parents, and when I hear they are getting sicker and sicker, it bothers me so much.”

Iqbal is not alone. But there finally may be light at the end of the tunnel for longtime legal permanent residents waiting for citizenship.

Authorities under fire from immigration activists and legislators for dragging out the process are responding to class action lawsuits filed by Muslim immigrants in several states claiming discrimination. They say they are redoubling efforts to clear old cases by November.

And, authorities anticipate once that backlog is eliminated, newer citizenship applications should move through the system swiftly, thanks to additional resources from the federal government.

Since May, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the FBI began clearing a nationwide backlog of 82,000 immigrant applications, starting with cases pending for more than three years. The backlog is now down to 10,000 cases, officials said.

“Our goal for November 2008 is to process any name checks that are pending for more than one year,” said Marilou Cabrera, USCIS Chicago spokeswoman.

While immigration authorities try to cope with the huge backlog of citizenship applications caused by new rules, civil rights advocates claim those regulations have unfairly targeted Muslim immigrants for undue scrutiny.

At issue is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security edict that the FBI conduct background checks and name checks on all immigrant petitions, including green card and citizenship applications.

Prompted by security concerns after the 2001 terrorist attacks, FBI name check requests jumped from 2.7 million in fiscal year 2001 to more than 4 million in fiscal year 2007, according to a U.S. Justice Department audit. The audit also found the FBI was understaffed and using an antiquated paper system for name checks, causing delays.

Naturalization applications also doubled in fiscal year 2007 to nearly 1.4 million, partly because there was a rush by immigrants to file before fee increases were implemented. That further snarled a process that should normally take about five months.

Immigrants from other ethnic groups are also affected by the citizenship delays.

Yet, what forced the change was dozens of class action lawsuits filed nationwide. Without them, federal agencies would not have devoted more resources to clear the backlog, said Christina Abraham, civil rights coordinator for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights advocacy group.

Since 2005, the group has documented about 380 cases of citizenship delays in the Chicago-area Muslim community, and filed dozens of lawsuits on behalf of suburban Muslims like Iqbal facing “unreasonable” delays in being naturalized.

A class-action lawsuit filed by the group in May 2006 was just recently resolved with all the plaintiffs being naturalized.

In June, the group won a lengthy legal battle in the high-profile case of Iranian-born Mohammed Reza Ghaffarpour, a 53-year-old University of Illinois at Chicago chemical engineering professor who waited six years for his citizenship approval.

Immigration authorities painted Ghaffarpour as a potential threat to national security based on multiple visits to Iran in recent years, an argument the court threw out while granting his citizenship.

The case heightened fears that prejudice against applicants with Muslim or Arab-sounding names, and general ignorance about those communities, were the underlying causes behind the delays.

That’s just the reality of a post-Sept. 11 America, said Dan Kairis, an anti-illegal immigration activist from South Elgin who advocates for American citizens’ rights.

“How much crucifixion will there be of the government agencies if they allow (Sept. 11) to happen again because they are trying to expedite the paperwork,” said Kairis, a former member of the Illinois Minuteman, an anti-illegal immigration movement. “It’s a necessity because of what happened before.”

Kairis said the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks were from Arab countries. “Is it profiling to make sure that doesn’t happen again or is it security?”

Still, more than 100 lawsuits filed by CAIR-Chicago await resolution as the list of Muslim immigrants seeking to expedite their petitions grows, Abraham said.

Federal officials say they have regularly met with Chicago-area Muslim community leaders to counter the perception of bias.

“The background checks and severe scrutiny is on every single application since 9/11,” said the USCIS’ Cabrera. “We do not choose one religion, nationality over another. I understand that it can be frustrating at times because there aren’t always answers.”

Citizenship cases get scrutinized the most because citizenship is final. “We can’t cut any corners there,” she said.

Cabrera added, once an immigrant’s petition is flagged under the FBI name check, there’s really nothing her agency can do to expedite it.

FBI spokesman Bill Carter said the agency is working with USCIS to clear the backlogs, but acknowledged some name checks take time to produce accurate results. He said the delays have nothing to do with discrimination.

“There is no profiling that is done,” Carter said. “If your name appears in an FBI file, that would be the reason for a delay.”

He contends about 95 percent of name checks sent into the FBI are usually cleared within three months.

“If there are multiple hits on a name, if it’s a common name, that’s where you have problems,” he said. “If it’s a foreign name, there can be different derivations.”

Carter said the agency must check variations or different spellings of each name to verify the person’s identity, often an issue with Muslim and Arab names.

The FBI currently is building a high-tech, digitized records facility to alleviate future processing delays, he said.

Junaid Afeef, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, says while the government may not overtly profile Muslims, he suspects ingrained biases play a role in who is flagged.

Afeef said it’s not just Muslim or Arab-sounding names, but anyone associated with Muslim organizations, such as foundations and charities that authorities have little or no information about, automatically raises a red flag.

“There’s so much misinformation about what these organizations are, what their source of funding is, and whether or not they are legitimate,” Afeef said. “They are spending an inordinate amount of time investigating things that really don’t need to be investigated because they are completely benign.”

Copyright © 2008 Daily Herald Inc.