Medill News Service: For Muslims, American citizenship a hard road

When Iyas Alhomouz was sworn in as a U.S.citizen at a ceremony in Chicago last week, it should have been a day of celebration.

But he did not bring family members or take photographs of what should have been an exhilarating milestone in his life. He went alone, and felt uneasy throughout the ceremony.

Alhomouz,30, who immigrated here 16 years ago from Ramallah on the West Bank, claims he was kept waiting more than four years for his citizenship because of ethnic and racial profiling. Alhomouz said he would still be waiting for his citizenship if he hadn’t filed a lawsuit in August 2005 urging the government to speed up the process.

He is one of several Arab immigrants here who are alleging that they are victims of this discriminatory practice. Arab immigrant groups say the delays are the result of lengthy background checks by the FBI in the wake of 9/11.

They say these checks are far longer than those carried out on would-be citizens from non Arab countries. The official process takes half a year.

“We understand that national security is very important, but we have had people who are waiting two, three and four years,” said Christine Abraham, spokeswoman for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago .

Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Chicago said the agency does not use racial profiling when processing applications. She said every citizenship applicant is given a background check regardless of his or her ethnicity.

But she conceded that, “Generally since 9/11 we have had additional background checks, which has led to a delay on some applications.”

Cabrera said the current six month processing time for applications in Chicago can be longer because an applicant’s name must be checked against security watchlists. She had no explanation why it would take longer for people of Arabic background to undergo such scrutiny.

Fred Tsao, a spokesperson for the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, suggested that Arabic names take longer to process because of duplication of similar names.

Suzanne Adely spokeswoman for the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) said Arab immigrant’s who are experiencing delays are predominantly men aged between 30 and 50. The AAAN has also noticed delays in applicants from Muslim countries in South-East Asia.

The Chicago chapter of CAIR receives several calls a week from people who have been waiting for up to six years for their citizenship, according to Abraham.

She said a class action law suit from people alleging racial profiling is being prepared. Fifty people have already qualified to be plaintiffs in the case. There is no further information on what court the suit would be filed in or when.

“They feel they are unnecessarily being singled out,” Abraham said. “These are people good, model citizens. They have never got into trouble and they work hard, but feel they are being targeted.”

Alhomouz passed his citizenship test in March 2001 and was waiting for the letter of confirmation. It did not come. He has a clean criminal record and was wondering why there was a delay with a process, which according to officials usually takes six months.

After numerous phone calls and letters to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, Alhomouz hired a lawyer last summer and filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding the issuance of his citizenship.

His court date was scheduled in federal court in November and U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services asked Judge Wayne R. Anderson for a more time to complete the background check, which they were granted. In December they asked for a further extension of 60 days. Last month Alhomouz received a letter in the mail inviting him to take the citizenship oath.

The entire experience left him exhausted, poorer by several thousand dollars in legal fees and disillusioned about the United States.

“It didn’t feel like anything after the run-around,” he said. “It felt like eyes were watching. It didn’t feel like the land of the free.”

Ali Abunimah, from Hyde Park, was granted U.S. citizenship in November after waiting almost three years. Like Alhomouz he also filed a federal lawsuit to speed up his citizenship application. He said he is concerned that other citizenship candidates who don’t have the financial means to hire an attorney are getting lost in the system for years on end.

Abunimah, 34, originally from Jordan, has lived in America since birth. But because his father was a Jordanian diplomat, Abunimah was not entitled to automatic citizenship.

While waiting almost three years for his citizenship, Abunimah repeatedly asked officials for an explanation. He also contacted politicians and even filed a freedom of information application. Each time he asked officials about his application, he was told that it was being processed and a background check was being conducted.

Abunimah said the most unsettling part of the long wait was wondering whether the background checks were about him personally or because he fit a profile.

“There is a sense that this is happening to Arabs and Muslims more than others,” he said. “That is worrying because it means there is racial and ethnic profiling.”

Abunimah said he thinks the application delays are exacerbated by the panic following September 11 and the lack of political representation for Arabs.

“No one wants to be seen as the person being soft on Arabs,” he said.

Prior to September 11 the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) could take a maximum of three months to run a background check for a citizenship application, according to Abraham.

Abunimah said he had looked forward to his swearing in ceremony but when it actually happened in November it was the end to what he called an unwelcoming experience.

“I am very fortunate to become a citizen but it leaves you with a feeling of being a suspect,” he said. “The U.S. is supposed to be about something else.”

Copyright © 2006 Medill News Service