- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

Several groups filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday against the federal government, saying that years-long delays in background checks during the citizenship process violate immigration laws.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Asian Law Caucus filed the suit against the Justice and Homeland Security departments in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, in San Francisco.

“Plaintiffs all have spent many years in the United States and have made this nation their home,” the lawsuit says. “They seek to pledge their allegiance to their adopted country and to participate fully in U.S. society as citizens.”

Todd Gallinger, CAIR legal counsel for the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, says his group has received 65 complaints from immigrants of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin.

“Regardless of whether these delays are due to discrimination or incompetence, they are illegal and must be corrected,” Mr. Gallinger said.

The class-action suit lists eight plaintiffs: Yinan Zhang, Alia Ahmedi, Shong Fu, Abdul Ghafoor, Miao Ling Huang, Sana Jalili, Yan Wang and Yan Yin. Named as defendants are Alberto R. Gonzales, the attorney general; Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief; Robert S. Mueller III, FBI director; Emilio T. Gonzalez, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; and David Still, USCIS district director.

The lawsuit says that citizenship applications must be ruled on within 120 days after a naturalization test is given, and that the plaintiffs have waited for several years.

“There is no point in calling our legal process a path to citizenship if the government puts up a roadblock to keep you from reaching the goal,” said Cecillia Wang, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. The suit seeks “to reaffirm the promises made to so many patient, hardworking immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens and fully participate in our democracy.”

Chris Bentley, spokesman for the USCIS, said he is not familiar with the lawsuit, but he added: “As a matter of policy, we do not comment about pending litigation.”

The agency approves an estimated 700,000 new citizens every year and 1 million new permanent residents, all of whom must undergo FBI background checks, Mr. Bentley said.

“Just getting a handle on the sheer volume we handle is hard to get across — six to seven million applications, and each one having a background check done,” he said.

“We’re working with the FBI to get checks done as quickly as we can, but at no time in the process are we going to compromise national security or public safety by pushing an application through for a decision until needed security checks have been completed.”

An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 cases will be backlogged for various reasons, including missed interviews or oath ceremonies, or the required FBI background check, Mr. Bentley said.

“The vast majority of FBI checks are done in six months. About 1 percent can take two to three years to be resolved. It depends on what level they have to go to get information to make sure the person who is on the application is not someone who has in their background a security risk,” he said.

The federal agency does not keep records on whether it takes longer to conduct background checks on immigrants from some countries.

“Nationality is not taken into consideration during the naturalization process. It doesn’t matter if you are born in England or Canada or South Africa; we treat all of the applicants the same,” Mr. Bentley said.

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